The Chinese coaches came with their pads and pens and clustered around the American coaches. They sat in chairs covered with delicately embroidered doilies and white slipcovers, and sipped green tea and drew on their Chung Hwa cigarettes, the best yuan can buy, and nodded politely when U.S. Coach Bob Giegengack told them they would be 10 years catching up with the track and field world. They asked him why they could not do it in five.
Leaning forward anxiously in their seats, they hung on the words of Dick Hill and Leroy Walker and the other American assistant coaches, each of whom conducted separate seminars in various techniques. Walker told them champion runners were not built in a day, nor champion vaulters and leapers, nor champion throwers of things.
Giegengack is the track coach at Yale, 68 years old and set in his words. He does not dispense them just to have something to say. He uses words as oratorical trapezes, for gymnastics. There in Canton's Tung Fang Hotel, where the ceilings were high, the beds hard and the plumbing grunted ominously through the night, and again in Shanghai's immaculate Ching Chiang Hotel, in luxury even the most hardened capitalist could appreciate, Giegengack gave his Chinese seminarians "fulcrum and lever principles" as they applied to this event or that, and "the center of gravity" as it related to the proper length of a man's stride, whether he runs 400 meters or is just trying to get in out of the rain. He gave them "Archimedes' Principle" and he gave them "inertia." He commented later that while he may have lost a few in translation, "They laughed at my jokes." He recalled that it was just recently that the universities of the People's Republic of China went out to lunch for five years, their professors reintroduced to the rice paddies while the country treated itself to a "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." In a situation like that, Archimedes is bound to suffer. Besides, Giegengack admitted, how many American coaches could relate fulcrums and levers to a 16-pound shot? The Chinese smiled and scribbled on their pads and asked for more.
"They are very bright," Giegengack concluded after the first 10 days of Yu-i-Ti-i, Pi-sai Ti-erh (Friendship First, Competition Second) in China, "and they're in a very big hurry."
June 1, 1975
To go where? To be athletically fit at the highest level, to get good enough to show the revisionist Russians a thing or two, to take a flying leap into the 1976 Olympics (providing, according to their oft-repeated proviso, that Taiwan gets booted out), to set another good example for the youth of China and other underdog nations, to make friends and influence people, maybe even to help the underdog AAU in its struggle to overcome the reactionary NCAA.
It was the AAU, after receiving the Chinese invitation last winter, that put this remarkable track show on the road, and in China these past two weeks the yu-i flowed like wine, although in the days before the border crossing from Hong Kong there had been some swelling of doubt among a pocket of Americans in the 95-man party. Because so little was known of the Chinese teams and because the Chinese had provided so little information in advance (not even a definite meet schedule or hotel assignments), sandbag theorists predicted an ambush. The American squad was reasonably representative, but for one reason or another a number of the very best athletes had stayed home. High jumper Dwight Stones told The New York Times that "Nineteen days with the AAU anywhere would be unbelievable."
But track and field is hardly China's national pastime. Table tennis, badminton and basketball rank far ahead of it. Yet track and field is an international attention-getter, especially at Olympic time, and it is a sport where lever-fulcrums of influence and power are, alas, not infrequently used. The Chinese obviously want to get into the act. From nowhere they finished a respectable third to Japan and Iran in the 1974 Asian Games, accumulating a sampan full of medals. Still, only one of their track and field athletes—7'6" high jumper Ni Chih-chin—had ever performed up to Olympic standards, and in the Asian Games, Ni had been off form at 7'1".
Tall, trim, remarkably similar in appearance to Taiwan's 1960 Olympic silver-medal decathloner, the UCLA-educated C. K. Yang, Ni was on hand to pay his respects when the train bearing the American squad pulled into humid Canton for the first of three two-day meets. He is now head of the athletics division of the All-China Sports Federation but, it was explained, he no longer competes. He had been injured and was getting old (32). He did not have time to talk with the American press, being "very busy" hosting and toasting the official American party.
Ni or no, the Chinese teams from southern (competing at Canton) and eastern (Shanghai) provinces offered little in the way of competition for the American men, who won the dashes by yards and the longer races by as many as two full laps and could only hope for sterner stuff against the Chinese national team in the third and last meet in Peking on May 27-28. In four days of running, jumping and kuan-hsi, as this kind of interpersonal relationship is called in China, the Chinese led in kuan-hsi by a mile and the Americans in about everything else. Of the 66 events at Canton and Shanghai—20 for men, 13 for women at each meet—the Chinese won four, all in the women's field events. There, precocious teen-agers from China's "athletic schools," where gifted youngsters are properly coached "to bring glory to the motherland," stood out.
In Shanghai a radiant 18-year-old named Chi Hai-chen and a 17-year-old named Li Li finished 1-2 in the high jump, both, to the amazement of some Americans, using the Fosbury Flop. They said they had seen it in a film but had never heard of the original Flopper, 1968 Olympic champion Dick Fosbury. In Canton discus thrower Kao Yu-kun respectfully appealed to Linda Langford for help, then outthrew her by two feet.
But the Chinese men were outclassed. "I doubt they could beat a good U.S. college team," Giegengack said, and then quickly qualified the remark (see what kuan-hsi does to a man, even a Yale man?), pointing out that their techniques—notably Russian-and East German-influenced—were sound, their spirit undeniably willing, their flesh absurdly unlimited. "Nine hundred million Chinese," Giegengack sighed, "and they all ride bicycles. That can't be bad."
Hill and Walker talked respectfully of the Chinese but noted that they were lacking in some essentials. The distance runners floundered, after good early foot, apparently unschooled in the difference between quantity and quality work. The shotputters, discus throwers and hammer throwers do not lift weights ("We get our training by jumping up and down," said one Chinese coach) and are not strong enough. The jumpers and vaulters are not fast enough. "They're amazed at the way we stomp the ground," said Dick Hill. "We rip it up, going down the runway. They go at a steady pace and barely make a mark."
Hill and Walker asked the Chinese coaches about their goals—the Olympic Games? In '76? In '80?—but were told that was of no concern. Learn now, play later. With the International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne to discuss China's admission, the Chinese were willing to repeat only the party line: that there is only one China, and Taiwan is its province.
It was clear enough after two meets how badly they wanted to learn and that the Americans were there as their guests and to be learned from. The Chinese athletes dogged the footsteps of their American counterparts, mimicking them and conversing with them by hand signals. The coaches watched and listened. They showed no embarrassment at the lopsided results. "It was what we expected," said one Chinese coach.
In truth there was not much face to lose. The crowds, which were large and enthusiastic, represented no more than a thimbleful of people by Chinese standards. There was no television. Word of mouth goes just so far.
But what were those few who actually saw the crazy Americans to think? Not about the way they crunched along the cinder tracks, making huge divots and winning race after race, but about their strange collections of clothes and near-clothes, of hairy and hairless men—sprinter Don Merrick with his corn rows, distance runner Dick Buerkle with his bald head and his infectious attempts to make conversation any way he could ("¬øSe habla espa√±ol?" he crooned as he ran with one smiling Chinese) and their unabashed forwardness. A girl in the stands, a student of philosophy at a nearby university, looked over this phenomenon and said politely, "Each country has its own habits and customs." It made her "warm inside," she said, "to see the friendship between the two peoples."
The Americans partied on their floor at the Tung Fang in Canton with Yu-chuan beer and mao-tai, the high-proof white lightning favored for toasting by Chinese state officials and American presidential parties. The floor jumped to the early hours, and next day a somewhat chastened American girl runner was rueful. "What will these wonderful people think of us?" she said. "Never mind," a liaison man replied, "they think you're all barbarians anyway." But he smiled when he said it.
Smiles, in fact, were the order of every day. Miles and miles of smiles. A track team by its nature is a Whitman's Sampler of flavors: jiving sprinters, introspective distance runners, cocksure weightmen. In their official blazers and gray made-in-Taiwan slacks (an oversight), the Americans looked similar enough, but once they unwound it was a sight to see. There in egalitarian China, now a nation of baggy pants and blue and gray Mao jackets and Sun Yat-sen tunics, suddenly appeared an army of purple-striped and yellow-flecked this-and-thats, braless, backless, bare-legged, in grubby Adidas shoes and clumpy sandal platforms, all of them armed with offensive Nikons and Kodaks and zoom lenses.
The Chinese seemed overwhelmed by such Brunhildes as Maren Seidler, a 6'1", 195-pound shotputter, and Patty Van Wolvelaere, a 5'7", 136-pound hurdler with no square sides. Who was in short shorts. And a T shirt. And braless. Not something you'd see in your everyday commune. One man in a rumpled blue jacket stood watching Patty for a long time, as if he did not believe it, and only when she turned and saw him did he back away. "I can't understand it," she said innocently. "I'm dressed just like the other guys."
Under banners that read, "Long live the friendship between the Chinese people and the athletes of the various peoples of the world," the Chinese did their best to run impeccable meets. The field officials were in solid white; there were no national flags, no anthems, no insignias on the Chinese athletes; international rules were said to be in effect. After the first day, the Chinese complained to Giegengack, "Friends to friends," about American athletes exhorting their teammates (against the rules), and calling out lap times (same thing) and wandering around with brand names showing on their fronts, backs and bags (same). Giegengack gently pointed out a few things the Chinese were allowing (coaching on the field, for example), and said he knew the rules, too. The Chinese smiled and all was quickly smoothed over. Kuan-hsi rides again.
As he left the stadium on the last day in Shanghai, Dick Hill watched the red-clad Chinese athletes smiling and waving and clapping the backs and shaking the hands of the Americans boarding the buses. He said he marveled at their potential but wished they would not try to do it all themselves—Chinese coaches teaching Chinese athletes without letting their charges be exposed directly to foreign experience. "They could get there almost overnight," he said, "if they didn't have so much pride."
His companion recalled a visit two days before to a turbine factory outside Shanghai. The U.S. athletes were hitting all the high spots—hospitals, communes, deaf-and-dumb schools, revolutionary ballets (each one credited to "the great leader Chairman Mao"). A poster listing workers' production figures had been put up in front of the machinery. A curious American athlete peered behind the concealing poster and saw a word on one machine. "Milwaukee," it said, in capital letters.