speaking Mao on sport.
but what in mind?
Mystery on a Bath-Water Morn
Like Marco Polo we came to China from foreign lands and knew not what to expect. What alien views? What hospitality? What dangerous games?
Cooke is a man of versatility and vitality, a linguist with five languages well learned—alas, not Chinese—Russian born and internationally educated. I was less cosmopolitan. Raised in Minnesota, I spent the summers of my youth weeding onions and hoeing corn, courting the daughters of marginal farmers and playing second base for a team fielded by a furniture store. I had grown up in a land of Golden Gophers, silos, bowling alleys and kick the can in the evening.
Cooke and I entered the formerly forbidden territory of Communist China in mid-June of this year with a high-spirited delegation of American basketball players plus chaperons, coaches, dignitaries, etc. It was a mean and muggy morning when we rattled the 90-plus miles through wet green hills from Hong Kong to the border, where our visas were stamped with maximum dispatch and minimum warmth. Together with the giants of the basketball teams we walked along railroad tracks beneath the famed ugly corrugated iron arch into China. The sentries, in baggy khaki, were unsmiling but also notably unarmed. Things dripped and steamed in the bath-water morning. There were cicadas strumming in the trees and, occasionally, bright blossoms. Inside the rambling, whitewashed Shum-chun Station we saw our first portrait of Chairman Mao. It was a gentle, romantic pose of the Chairman standing in transcendental tranquillity on a beach, a sea breeze licking gently at his coat-tails. This was the same man who had denounced us all as imperialists and running dogs barely three years before, but there was no menace now. Soon Cooke noticed that the Chinese symbols on the men's room door were accompanied by the word GENTS. "Aha, cultural shock crashes and recedes at the men's room door," said Cooke. Red China with GENTS seemed a little less alien.
We could be forgiven for being baffled about what mysteries might await us in the Middle Kingdom of China. Americans more than any others had been excluded during the last 25 years. Even since the Red Bamboo Curtain rose dramatically for the U.S. Ping-Pong team in 1971, fewer than 7,000 Americans have been let in—and an arbitrary and diverse group they are: David Rockefeller; Shirley MacLaine; some hydrologists; some Long Island schoolteachers; some physicians; some swimmers; a woman sexologist who kept asking startled commune peasants about what part oral sex played in their lives; John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist; Barbara Tuchman, the historian; Richard Nixon; a few Congressmen and their wives and a number of journalists on their own.
Our business in China, of course, was to explore the environment of sport as best we could, as much as we were allowed. None of the visitors preceding us had paid any real attention to China's games and we could guess almost nothing in advance. We could only wonder in terms of sport as we knew it in America, big and successful sport. Would there be a Chinese Joe Namath? Casey Stengel? Secretariat? AstroTurf? Automatic pinsetters? Instant replay, campgrounds, off-track betting, second basemen playing for furniture stores? On a more worldly scale we had to wonder if Chinese sport would resemble the Olympic athlete factories of Russia in the '50s, the swarming frenetic enthusiasms of Japanese sporting hordes in the '60s, the dogged production line of athletics as tooled by the East Germans in the '70s.
At Shum-chun Station we boarded the one o'clock train for Canton. It was an impressive mode of travel, perhaps two dozen air-conditioned cars, black-green plush seats, beige lace curtains, polished wood, green tea served in fine white china mugs. We slid soothingly along for two hours, watching through a rain-streaming window the stunning mosaic terrain formed by the countryside's ancient agriculture, seemingly unchanged for 4,000 years. Men clad in breechclouts and wide round straw hats still tilled the fields in the rain, urging their water buffalo through mud. The rice paddies were a blinding green, the villages built of ageless gray stone and soft-brown tile. And then, in the eternal China of the Tang and Sung and Ming dynasties, we saw a basketball hoop and a backboard set on the weedy limits of a village. A single little boy threw a jump shot into the basket as we rushed by on the way to Canton.
On Trying Vince Lombardi for Treason
Cooke glared at the huge blocky concrete Peking airport terminal and hissed, "The Russians taught them this." It was here, after a 1,400-mile Ilyushin II 62 flight from Canton, that we met our hosts, a bowing, smiling, repetitiously handshaking group of fellows with immaculate white teeth and gray tunics. They were from the All China Sports Federation. The American basketball delegation arrayed itself in stuffed chairs and sofas around the terminal's mammoth, echoing, empty lobby with its 30-foot ceilings and thick marble columns. We were served a bland yellow soda pop that had a vague citrus flavor. And here Cooke and I met our constant companion, our ears and our voice for China, a stocky, sunny-smiling fellow who said, "How do you do? I am Mr. Li. That is spelled L I. I will be with you always while you are visiting the People's Republic of China."