Huang Zhihong speaks spontaneously, like somebody just out of solitary confinement. She sings spontaneously, too. Huang, the women's world champion in the shot put, did some extemporaneous crooning last fall at a Karaoke songathon attended by nearly 10,000 of the People's Republic's people.
"She had the worst voice, positively," says Yang Yingming, a Chinese sports editor. "But everyone liked her the best."
"I sound like a cow," offers Huang, through a translator.
"Not a cow," corrects Yang. "Like every barnyard animal combined!"
Huang laughs. She's a splendidly ample woman—220 pounds on a 5'7" frame—with a good, strong face: smooth, clear skin; lively, vivid eyes.
Called Lao Huang (Old Huang) because she's still competing at the ancient age of 27, she is, according to one Chinese sports official, "remarkable for her harmonious movements, strength and swift throws." Swift and very long throws, actually. At the 1989 World Cup in Barcelona, her heave of 68'¼" earned her a gold medal, the first ever by an Asian in a World Cup track and field event, and she struck gold again with a throw of 68'4¼" at last year's world championships in Tokyo. And though she has a good chance to become the first Chinese track and field athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, her coach, Kan Fulin, says, "Neither Huang nor I places much importance in winning the gold. We believe victory in competition is the reward for difficult training, much like a farmer reaps a good harvest after a year's hard work in the field."
Huang takes an equally Maoist approach toward her accomplishments. "Results are results," she says. "What I have done is no more newsworthy than if I had swallowed 500 eels."
As a kid, Huang used to get teased about her weight. "What kind of athlete are you?" classmates would ask.
"I'm a marathoner," she would say.
"How can that be?"
"I never win," she would crack. "I just run slowly."
Huang is a woman completely at ease with herself. "If you don't care about being fat, you'll feel happy," she says. "If you do care, you will be unhappy. Me? I don't care. I have always been very big."
The elder of two children, Huang grew up in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Her parents worked in a textile factory. At 13, she was spotted by a prominent javelin coach and enrolled in a provincial sports school. She tried the javelin but "felt too clumsy." She tried the discus but "felt too dizzy." Finally, she tried the shot put. "I felt just right," she says. By 1985, at age 20, she was ranked No. 2 in the country. In '86, she won the title at the 10th Asian Games.
Early on, Huang realized something many athletes don't find out until they hit 30 or 40—that there are all sorts of interesting things in life apart from sports. She designs clothes, she reads historical novels, and she is studying English. Instead of displaying her trophies and gold medals on the mantel, Huang chucks them under her bed. "They're fake," she says, jokingly. Huang ought to know. After winning a medal, she chomps on it, hoping thereby to determine—somehow—its authenticity. "Fake, fake, every one fake," she says, ruefully.
Huang is an emancipated woman. "She doesn't like to be told to do anything," says Kan. "Ask most Chinese athletes to win a gold medal, and they'll say, 'If you want me to, I will.' Huang says, 'Don't pressure me. I already intend to win.' " Her attitude mirrors the spirit of the times in her country. "The slogan in today's China is, Don't discuss what belongs to capitalism or socialism—just do it," Yang says. "We got that from our leader, Deng Xiaoping." Who may have gotten it from a Nike ad.
Huang practices doing it in the weight room of the Chinese Sports Training Center. "What do I like about the shot put?" she says, smiling. "I do not like anything about it. What is there to like about those heavy lumps of metal? If I had known the lumps would make me fat, I never would have taken up the sport."
Huang's rapid release may be the most explosive in women's shot-putting. "She's got the most rip, the most pop by far," says Art Venegas, the throwing coach at UCLA. "The speed with which she rotates her hips gives her throws incredible thrust, and the shot literally bursts out of her hand. She has the balance, agility and brute force of a great middle linebacker."
Despite it all, Huang placed a disappointing eighth at the Seoul Olympics. But she rebounded quickly, winning the silver at the 1989 World Indoors in Budapest. What impressed Kan most was not Huang's performance but the self-critique she wrote afterward. He quotes it from memory: "Nerves were the reason for my defeat at the Olympics. Being too nervous. I could not control myself, and the result was that I relied on sheer force at the expense of technique. To keep a cool head at all times is of great importance. Only in this way can one be in good form and give full play to one's skills."
As Kan recites, Huang chugs around the track. "She has slow feet." he observes, "but a very fast mouth."
He remembers once sitting next to Huang on a long train ride from Qinhuangdao to Beijing. "No matter how many times I asked, she would not stop yakking," he says.
Finally, Kan said, "Huang Zhihong, could you keep quiet for just three minutes?" When she shook her head, Kan grabbed her hand. "If you open your mouth in the next three minutes," he said, "I'll pinch your fingers."
Huang shut up. "I held the words as long as I could," she recalls. Which turned out to be a minute and 40 seconds.
"Maybe not a national record," says Kan. "But still, a personal best."