She was a talented child in Barcelona, 13 years old, throwing herself from the 10-meter platform, flipping and falling, twisting her body into extravagant knots and escaping at the end for straight-down perfect landings in the water. Look at me. Look at me. She was the five-foot-tall, 93-pound daughter of the guests in the next room at some global Holiday Inn, delighting everyone gathered around the pool as she became the youngest platform diver to win an Olympic gold medal.
No more. Fu Mingxia is four years older and two inches taller and nearly 30 pounds heavier, and while at first glance she may resemble some talented elf in flight, she has become one of the grand athletes of our time.
By winning both the platform and the three-meter gold medals last week in the late-night spotlights at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, she put herself on a course to become the most successful diver in history. She is the first woman since East Germany's Ingrid Kramer in 1960 to win both events in a single Olympics, and with three gold medals, total, Fu is only one gold behind the record of four shared by Pat McCormack and Greg Louganis, both of the U.S.
Look at me, indeed. She is only two medals shy of the record for total diving medals of any denomination, five, which is shared by Louganis and Klaus Dibiasi of Italy. Seventeen years old. Louganis and Dibiasi were 28 when they got their final medals. "In 1992,1 was a little girl," Fu, the daughter of a factory worker and an accountant in Wuhan, said last week. "Now I am grown. I am heavier and stronger, but I do not think that has affected my performance. I will go ahead, step by step, and see what happens."
Her performances, added to the men's springboard win of 22-year-old Xiong Ni, who was first seen as a 14-year-old finishing second by only 1.14 points to Louganis in Seoul in 1988, gave China diving dominance in Atlanta. Only a victory by Russian favorite Dmitri Sautin in the final event, the men's platform, thwarted a Chinese sweep. China could have become the first country to win all four events since the U.S. did so in '52.
American divers landed with a thud. Or maybe a splat. This was the first time since 1912, not counting 1980, when the U.S. boycotted the Games, that American divers did not win at least one gold medal. Mary Ellen Clark (platform) and Mark Lenzi (springboard) took bronze.
"The Chinese work harder," Sautin says. "I work maybe five hours a day, every day of the week. The Chinese, I hear, work eight hours. Perhaps that is why they win more than their share of the competitions."
Fu says she worked seven hours a day, six days a week to prepare for the Olympics. Her only activities besides training were "listening to music, watching television and getting massages." The top U.S. divers practice 24 hours a week at most.
"I don't know how the Chinese do it," says Scott Donie of the U.S., who finished fourth in the springboard. "In my biggest workouts, just when I was starting, I wouldn't do more than 100 dives in a day. Now, I don't do more than 40. It becomes a case of keeping yourself together, staying fit. I guess everyone has their own way of doing things."
The finals of each event started late, at 10 p.m., a sort of strange digestif after a full day of Olympic sports. Demands by NBC—if you want live prime-time coverage, you'd better start after track and field is finished—converted the sport into a lead-in to the local news and Jay Leno's nightly monologue. And with the 12 finalists doing five or six dives rather than the traditional eight to 11 (depending on the event and the athletes' gender), the typical program lasted only an hour. Nearly 12,000 spectators paid $64 to $159 apiece on four nights for what was one of the priciest events per minute on the Olympic calendar.