What's China's track?

The slogan 'friendship first, competition second' greeted our team, but there may have been other goals behind the warmth
June 15, 1975

On the final day in Shanghai, the last stop before Peking, the American track and field party was taken cross-town in a caravan of honking buses to the Lu Wan district Children's Palace for what, except for one moment, was the most warming occasion of the trip. As passersby crowded around (a single foreign face can tie up an intersection in most of China), the children met the buses at curbside, smiling and clapping their hands. Each disembarking American was taken in tow by a Chinese boy or girl who grabbed a hand and became a personal escort for the next couple of hours. "American friends," they called us through interpreters. "American aunts and uncles," they called us.

Inside, we were taken through a cornucopian children's world of table tennis, badminton, ringtossing, tree-house climbing and simulated bicycle racing; through busy art classes and bustling handicraft shops; and into ready-to-roll music recitals. Through the courtyards and up and down the four-story building, through one happy room after another, we over-sized human vessels were tugged and nudged along by our tiny nephews and nieces.

I was told by one interpreter that they were no more than garden variety Chinese neighborhood kids, getting two extra hours of school fun a day. But our own faithful interpreter Sun Chen-kao—escort for the International Travel Service, devout Ping-Ponger, card-carrying Communist Party member and friend of the oppressed working press, who I believe would swallow his tongue before calling less than 12 a dozen—told me they were children who had earned the privilege. Many districts, he said, had children's palaces. My own little escort held my forefinger like an affectionate crab, directing me to preferred seating at the mini-recitals and fetching me the paddles and balls to play the games with. I showed him snapshots of my children, and let him take pictures with the expensive camera I carried. He thanked me profusely.

Then, toward the end of this extraordinary interlude, the American athletes and officials were brought to a small auditorium and given the usual cups of green tea in which the leaves float like hyacinths. The finale, presented on a small stage at one end of the room, was a special performance of singing and dancing groups, each little entertainer rouged and costumed in colorful prerevolutionary styles no longer fashionable (or acceptable) in gray-uniformed, baggypantsed socialist China. Ordinarily no interpretation was necessary beyond the titles of the numbers. They followed familiar inspirational themes—factory workers uniting to serve the masses, Little Red Guards routing the revisionists, tractor drivers pushing the Communist cause to glory, usually under the steam of a sentence or two from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The showstopper was a soloist, a pretty, wide-faced girl no more than 12, fully made up and dressed in bright red brocade. She hit all the high notes and gestured artfully and with great expression. It would have passed as just another delight for the senses, except for a longtime China watcher in our group, a man who speaks the language. He told me the history of her song. It is called Taiwan Compatriots, he said, a song about the long-awaited overthrow of the Republic of China on Taiwan. The key words, "We shall certainly liberate Taiwan," were delivered with an upraised fist. It was the song, he said, that had been added belatedly to the repertoire of the Chinese Performing Arts Troupe, forcing the U.S. State Department to cancel that group's tour of America last March. The State Department found it embarrassing in view of the U.S.'s own uncle-to-nephew relationship with Taiwan.

What to make of this? Looking for footholds on a bare mountain after a mere 15 days in China, it would seem not much. After all, it was only a small if passionate plug for nationalism that went almost wholly unnoticed or, perhaps, a tiny rebuke of a precipitous American slight, or, conceivably, it had no significance at all. Even if there was an ulterior motive for the inclusion of the song in the Shanghai recital, it is excusable enough for a social order that is still skittish, if not paranoid, about invading influences and in which every avenue of expression—movies, plays, operas, sports—is hyped with the numbing repetition of revolutionary propaganda. In light of the overall good and the overwhelming (and I think genuine) friendliness surrounding the invasion-by-invitation of 95 American track and field athletes and officials, apparently not much should be made of the incident.

Yet the People's Republic of China as a government of Orwellian controls and restrictions is nothing if not calculating. " 'Calculate everything, distrust everyone,' is the theme of China's relations with the world," a State Department man had said in Hong Kong. (I find two notes, otherwise unrelated, in my diary of the trip: Chang, another interpreter and an aspiring party member, telling me that the Russians were definitely out to get the Chinese. "They are revisionists, capitalists and imperialists," he said. "They want to make China a colony"; and Sun telling me in more subdued tones that they were still digging bomb shelters in Peking. "Chairman Mao says to 'dig in deeper,' " he said.)

The Republic of China on Taiwan has been a boil on the People's Republic's right hip for 25 years, inoperable by any military means short of a massive, mutual bloodbath. Bloodbaths are considered repugnant in these days of Ping-Pong diplomacy and détente. If athletics are not the cutting edge of this new diplomacy, they are at the very least a recognized tool, another means to the end. The Republic of China has been booted out of the United Nations and now is being treated as summarily in the sports world. I am reminded of what Tung Yi-wan of the All-China Sports Federation told this magazine (SI, Sept. 24, 1973) after the Ping-Pong visits of 1972. "Now things are much better than before the Cultural Revolution. People have a better understanding that they can promote their health and thus build socialism through sports," he said.

So I search for voices to accompany the pretty little soloist in Shanghai. They are not hard to find. In a stadium filled with 10,000 sweltering Cantonese I am taken into the stands by an interpreter named Chiong for a "spontaneous" interview. Of all those people in agrarian South China, he happens upon a medical intern sitting next to a student of philosophy, the latter an animated 23-year-old woman named Chen Hen-gu. Chen not only perceives the great warmth and friendliness of the occasion but sees it as part of a natural progression "following the revolutionary line in physical culture."

The coach of the Chinese regional team the Americans ran against in Canton is a fit, graying man of 40 named Ou Wei-tan. He is dressed in an all-red sweat suit. When I ask Ou what the Chinese track and field intentions are and what his hopes might be concerning Olympic participation, he says, "The Chinese athletes would be very glad to take part in the Olympics—to increase our friendship with foreign athletes and to raise our standards of performance. But we are opposed to the two-China policy [of the International Olympic Committee]. We think the People's Republic of China that represents 800 million people can represent the whole of China."

He then outlines briefly the ways in which the People's Republic has been gearing up in track and field, a sport to which it has given scant attention in the past. He talks of an accelerated program that has brought in many new coaches "in the last five or six years." I ask him to what purpose. "We follow Chairman Mao's teaching," he says. " 'Serve the people.' "

Before the second day of competition in Shanghai, we are given the chance to talk with two young women competitors, an 18-year-old javelin thrower named Li Hsia and a 19-year-old discus thrower named Wang Tan. They are rare items in the "friendly competition"—Chinese winners. They say they have trained at athletic schools in separate districts and that they have attended them twice a week for two years with 70 or 80 fellow students and three or four coaches. I ask Li why they have these schools. "For the purpose of promoting friendship," she says in a very soft voice, "and winning honors for the motherland."

I ask Wang if she would like to participate in the Olympic Games one day. She looks at Li and then at their coach, a handsome, strong-faced woman in middle age. The coach is smiling. "It is not a matter of her liking to," says Li, "because the leaders of the Olympic Committee pursue a policy of two Chinas."

"What if they change the policy?" I ask.

"Yes," she says, smiling broadly. "We would like it then."

At the Summer Palace in Peking, over a lunch of rouse mien, tang swan yu (sweet and sour fish) and bottles of orange pop called jiu-dz shui that are as prevalent on Chinese tables as green tea, we are at last permitted to speak with Ni Chih-chin, the recently retired 7'6" high jumper who is chairman of athletics for the All-China Sports Federation. We talk with him while we eat at the Pavilion for Listening to Orioles and then on a palace excursion boat on Kunming Lake, where the view of Longevity Hill and the Hall That Dispels the Clouds takes the breath away.

Ni is a quick-witted garrulous man of 32 who is obviously well thought of. Before our interview, we had been told he was "too busy" to talk, though we had seen him standing around a lot with his arms crossed. (His superior, Minister of Sports and former world Ping-Pong champion Chuang Tse-tung, proved "too busy" for the duration, despite my formal letter requesting an audience. In Peking it is easier to get a tennis game with U.S. Liaison Officer George Bush, who is in effect our ambassador to China, than it is to cadge an hour with Chuang.)

Ni wears a blue Western-style shirt, sleeves rolled up, and gray pants. He chain smokes as he talks. I ask him whether he would high jump in the Olympics in 1976 if the Chinese were admitted.

"Ah-ah-ah," he says, grinning so that his agate eyes disappear into the glare of his horn-rimmed glasses. "I am getting older and older, and the height of my jumps gets lower and lower."

He says that he is a conservative when it comes to the pace of China's sports development, that it could be 10 years before the Chinese work themselves up to world standards. "Maybe by 1980 in some events," he says. "But by that time I will be much too old." He points out that the Chinese are still "groping" for maturity, experimenting with numerous young athletes and that they need specialized training, particularly in the middle-and long-distance races and in the weight events.

"Maybe tomorrow," says Bob Giegengack, the American coach, who is listening in.

"I hope so—and maybe then we will beat you in one or two events," says Ni.

"Friendship first, competition second," Giegengack says, smiling.

"We have already achieved friendship first," says Ni, and laughs aloud.

On our way off the excursion boat, through the ever-pressing crowds of curious Chinese, I ask Ni if he might not attend the '76 Olympics in Montreal as a qualified observer.

"It depends on the environment," he says.

I know what he means, but I press for an explanation.

"It depends on whether the IOC expels the Chiang Kai-shek clique," he says.

Was the U.S. track and field visit laden with overtones against the other China on Taiwan? With acrimonious Olympic dialogue? No. On the contrary, these were rare moments in a tour that concentrated on fun and games. In the coaches-to-coaches sessions the Chinese obviously relished, they did not want to discuss the Olympics at all, though at that moment the IOC was meeting in Switzerland to decide the fate of the country's application, which had been submitted with the proviso that the Republic of China be expelled. As it turned out, the decision was postponed indefinitely, no victory for the mainland Chinese, but hardly a comfort to the government on Taiwan.

Ou's last words to me were far from contentious. He expressed the hope that "the athletes and people of China and the U.S. be friendly forever." It was a typical sentiment, toasted at banquets in all three cities and heralded on the slogan boards that dominate—in place of neon lights—the Chinese urban scene ("Learn from Each Other to Improve Sportsmanship"; "Long Live the Friendship Between the Chinese People and the Athletes of the Various Peoples of the World"). This sentiment should not be entirely disbelieved.

Still, it seems reasonable to assume that the continuing shrinkage of the Republic of China's international ties, not friendship on the tracks and Ping-Pong tables of the world, is the most important P.R.C. goal. In pursuing that end the People's Republic has surely found a tool in athletics. Its approach has become familiar: the P.R.C. applies for admission to an international sports body, or athletic event, claiming to be the "rightful representative of 800 million Chinese" and stipulating that the 15 million citizens of the Republic of China be disassociated. As the argument goes, Chiang and his followers botched their chance to rule mainland China, and the people kicked them out. Consequently, the R.O.C. does not deserve recognition in anything, anywhere. The wheels turn, and out goes Chiang's China. In May of last year the International Weight Lifting Federation ousted the Republic of China and admitted the P.R.C. So did the International Fencing Federation. The basketball, table tennis, volleyball and badminton federations accepted the P.R.C. without balloting because the Republic of China was not represented in those bodies. Last June the International Football [soccer] Federation accepted the People's Republic and terminated the R.O.C.'s membership by a simple majority vote; the three-fourths vote necessary for certification has not been taken.

That same month Dr. Harold W. Henning of Naperville, Ill., president of the International Amateur Swimming Federation, visited China. Dr. Henning came away unconvinced that making room for the P.R.C. was tied inextricably with expelling the Republic of China. Under fire, Dr. Henning held firm. Three months later the P.R.C. sent a large delegation of swimmers to the Asian Games in Tehran anyway and in an 11th-hour move, withdrew its objection to the R.O.C.'s participation. At the same time the P.R.C. reiterated its complaint against "the conspiracy vainly attempting to create 'two Chinas,' " in international sports organizations.

Dr. Henning's steadfastness, though applauded in the U.S. and a few other places, has not been imitated elsewhere. Ireland's Lord Killanin, president of the IOC, has said he is "sympathetic to the Chinese as long as they do not try political pressure" to bump the R.O.C. Lord Killanin has not yet been denounced with the vitriol the mainland Chinese laid on the late Avery Brundage (they called Brundage's mind "obsolete"), but Teng Hsiao-ping, vice-premier of the P.R.C, told Canadian journalists in October that "as long as the Olympic movement does not deny the rights of Taiwan, we will not enter." As a little gray-haired English-speaking professor at Peking University who is a former Brooklyn resident ("And how is Mr. Pee Wee Reese?" he wanted to know) said, when asked if he thought Communism and capitalism were compatible, "Time will tell." In view of the way the tide has been running, the odds of a swing in the Olympic vote, says one U.S. official, "appear to favor the P.R.C."

Is this to say that the visit of 95 Americans, the largest group of "friendly competitors" yet to enter China, was not friendly after all but a giant, well-programmed subterfuge? By no means. You cannot fake at ground level the kind of outpouring of amity the Chinese exhibited. From the first day in Canton, when an American runner getting off the train thought he was walking into a rainstorm, only to find he was hearing the clapping hands of Chinese athletes lining the way, the good will came down in buckets. The wooing of the Americans was profound, and even if programmed from above, it came across in genuine and generous proportions.

Interestingly enough, if the mainland Chinese participate in the Olympics any time soon, it is unlikely that they will be a big winner. Despite that mass of humanity, there has been no great leap forward in track and field in China. A precipitous entry—in 1976, say—could be a national disgrace. As the Americans won event after event in China, Dick Buerkle, the intense, likable distance runner with the glistening head of skin who completed an unusual triple by winning the 5,000 meters in Canton, the 1,500 in Shanghai and the 10,000 in Peking, said, "I know this must be embarrassing for them, and you can tell it hurts, but they keep on clapping."

Not all of them kept on clapping. In the official's box in Peking Ni watched the last rout, turned to a new-found American friend and blurted, "You'd think with 800 million people we could find a couple of distance runners." He complained of "not enough proper training," and "not enough good coaching" and "not enough good facilities." He pointed down to the beautiful artificial track on the modern Peking Stadium floor. Five years ago, he said, some foreigners had advised him that American-made Tartan was the best surface available. He said he wanted to purchase a Tartan track from the U.S. But no. China was proving itself self-reliant. It would solve its own problems. It took four years, he said, to come up with the right formula for an acceptable Oriental surface, a duplicate of Tartan.

By the time the tour hit Peking there was no reason to believe that even the Chinese National team was going to offer any competition. The Americans were not the best capitalism had to offer. Big names—Steve Williams, Marty Liquori, Rick Wohlhuter, Dwight Stones, John Powell, Steve Prefontaine (then still alive)—were missing from the roster, and some of those who were on it were names even Stan Saplin, the press liaison officer who prides himself on his knowledge of the sport, had never heard of. Ex-Olympic decathloner Russ Hodge, the athletes' representative for the tour, estimated that no more than 25% of the men in the group would make the U.S. Olympic team.

And still the Americans won and won and won, taking 91 of the 99 events in the three cities. They lost only once in men's competition—when 40-year-old team Co-captain and hammer thrower Al Hall was beaten by three inches on the last throw by a coal miner-electrician named Li Yun-piao. Hall was so elated that he personally escorted Li around the track, holding up the winner's arm and pointing to him proudly. But Li hardly represents a new wave of Chinese athletes. He is 37 years old and his winning throw was 29 feet short of minimum Olympic standards.

The new wave for China will have to be the corps of 50 8-year-olds that followed the Americans from city to city, aping their movements and competing as added surprise starters in almost all events. Egalitarian Chinese propagandists can call them what they will, but they are a hand-picked group drawn from all over China, and in time they will do well.

And they proved that elitism is not dead in China. The chosen 50 are an elite group. The children of the Children's Palaces are an elite group. The meal we journalists treated ourselves to at the Peking Duck Restaurant was certainly not proletarian fare. There were nine in our party, and we were served 11 dishes, including shredded salmon fin that looked like jellied cobwebs but tasted much better. The bill came to 700 yuan or about 400 Yankee dollars. "The Chinese people," said an interpreter at the table, "do not eat this way every day."

Chances are that the average Chinese is unaware such lavish restaurant dinners are still served or that an athletic elite is allowed to exist. Chinese newspapers, like those in many non-democratic countries, are an appalling excuse for journalism—I would be surprised if they weren't, I suppose—and there is no television for the masses, and you seldom hear radios playing. Except for the privileged few in the stands (few in a relative sense, the crowds being near capacity in every city), not many Chinese could have known what was happening on the tracks during the American visit.

The Hsinhua News Bulletin, published in English and dispensed at the hotels, reported that the U.S. athletes were "feted in Peking," that Ni and Bush and other dignitaries were on hand and that "a friendly contest at the Peking Workers Stadium" was held. It did not elaborate on the results. The story of the team's visit to Peking appeared on the last page of the biweekly Sports under an inconspicuous headline and included one small picture. Considerably more space was devoted by Sports to a picture feature on children engaged in a tug-of-war, a wheelbarrow race and a swimming lesson. You would have thought by reading the Chinese papers that American track and field teams dropped in every day.

It was explained by two Chinese that track and field was not a big thing in their country. I said if that were the case, why were all those people in the stands? Were they summoned? And why were the Chinese working so hard to get into the mainstream of international competition? "To promote friendship," I was told.

That afternoon I had walked around the corner from the hotel to do some shopping and happened by the People's Daily, the only Chinese newspaper foreigners are allowed to buy. Curious, I decided to take a look. At the front door a guard with a rifle and bayonet persuaded me easily enough that I should continue my shopping.

After the events that day at the Peking Stadium two Europeans who identified themselves as reporters from Reuters approached the cluster of American journalists seeking names of athletes and results. They were told by a Chinese liaison man that they were not authorized to write about the meet, that only the Americans had authorization, and that they please should just go away. Which, after a mild argument, they did.

I think now that Sun, that unflagging good-humor man ("I am only small people," he would say; "I only do my job," he would say), must have been continually amazed by the six American journalists with the team. We bombarded him daily with individual problems not always consistent with the group schedule. I wonder how often he must have gritted his teeth as, almost without fail, he did our bidding. When the press sits up and does what it is told, there are no problems.

These were things the American athletes had no need to ponder during their joyride through China. They were given a heady look at the wonders Communism in the hands of a genius like Mao Tse-tung can perform for a wretched, exploited people. They saw communes and factories buzzing with productivity, children and young people happily at work and play, and professional men effecting marvelous cures and attaching torn and sawed-off limbs.

On the plane ride home I asked a handful of thoughtful young athletes if they had had time to assimilate what they had seen. Almost all of them said they were impressed. Keith Francis of Boston College, who won the 800 in all three meets, marveled at "the way the system takes care of the people—feeds them, clothes them. For so many people it's amazing how well it works." Pole vaulter Roland Carter of Houston spoke of the clean streets, the apparent lack of crime. "Maybe they are brainwashed," he said, "but it looks like they've wound up with a pretty darn good country." Long jumper Willye White, a five-time Olympian, said it was a pleasure to see a society "not so wrapped up in material things." She wondered if American jails would be filled with as many children if they were taught to "serve the people" the way the Chinese children are.

Dr. Delano Meriwether, the hematologist-sprinter, called it "the major educational event" of his life. He said he now could appreciate how a society works when survival is paramount. "It's in their personality," he said, "it's in their philosophy. I doubt most Americans could conceive it. I'm too much of an individual to want such a life for myself, but they have achieved relative happiness and are self-supporting, and I can appreciate that."

Dick Buerkle said it was too early for him to tell. "They threw so much at me—propaganda, whatever," he said. "I need a couple of weeks to let it sink in." Buerkle had visited a commune where 23,000 people work. During a tour of the place an Ohioan on the team noted that the acreage figured out to be about the same that his father and uncle farmed by themselves with machinery in America. Buerkle said he wondered what mechanization will do to China if it ever comes, or how the Chinese can stop it from coming. "What will they do with all these people then?" he asked. He said the overwhelming friendliness had impressed him, but there were times when he wondered about it, too. Once an interpreter on his bus suddenly had launched into an attack on the U.S. policy regarding Chiang's government. " 'You must get your troops out,' he told me," Buerkle said. "Later I told him I was going to write a story about the trip, and about him. Wow! He got bent all out of shape. After that he was ice cold. So I wonder."

As for the American party, there were times that made everybody wonder, not about the Chinese but about themselves. Could such a motley group find happiness under such conditions and under such leadership? Poor Giegengack suffered from beginning to end. In San Francisco on getaway day he was rudely criticized by a columnist for everything from his advanced age (68) to the way he wore white socks with his dress clothes. "My wife will like that," Giegengack joked, although he was visibly shaken. "She doesn't like my white socks, either."

On the last day in Peking he was almost left behind, exhausted and sick after a chaotic last-night banquet that was given to honor the Chinese. At the dinner Giegengack had felt compelled to correct the oversights of the American group's leadership and spoke at some length in praise of the lesser American officials, such as team Manager Charley Ruter, and assistants and trainers who had not previously been given credit. He named them all.

They deserved his praise because the U.S. delegation had somehow coped despite a startling lack of planning and coordination. The Chinese had been given carte blanche to run the show, and responded by telling the AAU nothing beforehand, not the names of the hotels that the group would stay in, not the departure dates from each city, not even the exact times of the competitions, something top athletes on rigid training schedules should know. AAU President Joe Scalzo, a nice man from Toledo, Ohio who seemed to be in over his head, managed to keep smiling. (AAU Executive Director Ollan Cassell, a track veteran, was left home. "We had to leave somebody behind to run the store," said one AAU man.) Scalzo's speeches—and he never missed an opportunity to give one—left his fellow countrymen squirming in their seats.

The accompanying representatives of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, an American group that was primarily responsible for the tour, spent most of their time gawking at the sights and practicing up on their Chinese. They provided a minimum of assistance, and this should be remembered when future trips to China are organized. "You ask 'em an easy question," said Willye White, "and they look at you like you're stupid. But if you ask them a hard one, they can't answer it."

Finally there was the low comedy at the last-night banquet, when the toasting got misdirected and out of hand. It was not really the fault of the athletes, who were due to unwind. The drinks flowed and the subsequent embarrassment was universal. (Even the still-smiling Chinese looked bewildered, though they could chalk it off as educational.) The topper was not the brief postbanquet fisticuffs between two American athletes outside the International Club. On such occasions Americans are almost expected to do that. The most embarrassing moment came before the banquet, when AAU and China Relations officials met to determine what gifts they might give as tokens of appreciation to the Chinese they were about to honor.

An American official, who evidently was sick of passing out AAU flags as presents, at one point suggested he might give out some of his company's three-color ballpoint pens. A China Relations man said he had an even better idea. He suggested they give out AAU tie clasps. Press Liaison Officer Saplin, a veteran of two weeks in China, pointed out to the China expert that the Chinese do not wear neckties.

SIX PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)