SI Vault
William Johnson
October 01, 1973
Mass enthusiasm for athletics, evident everywhere, rises to fervid pitch in the Swimming Village, where most of the town dips in at the drop of a flag
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October 01, 1973

An Eager People In The Swim

Mass enthusiasm for athletics, evident everywhere, rises to fervid pitch in the Swimming Village, where most of the town dips in at the drop of a flag

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Though the Chinese speak somewhat longingly of the day they will reach world levels of the game, there seems to be no officially sanctioned effort to mold and manufacture super-athletes through a full-time commitment of their personal energies. Mu, who easily might become a member of a Chinese Olympic basketball team should that day arrive, said that he comes from a remote province in the north of China where he is a student learning to drive a truck. "We practice two or three times a week, mostly voluntarily," he said. "We are almost all students. We get together for 20 days to practice for provincial and national tournaments, but we only practice half a day and the other half we do our normal study or profession. It is true that we are redoubling our efforts to become world-class players in basketball, but there is always the problem of balancing training and our studies."

I informed Mu that in the U.S. there are many basketball players who do nothing but play the game, indeed make their livings at it. He was nonplussed. He paused, shook his head and said, "Basketball is very important in China to promote our health, but it is not so important that students should give up their studies or their socialist jobs for it. I would say that the tendency in China is toward the importance of amateur sports. I really do not think the day will come when men in China will spend their full days and their lives only playing games. It is not the natural thing for a man to do."

Of Renegades and Traitors

We sat in overstuffed chairs and couches covered with whitish beige slipcovers; this is the routine thick furniture of negotiation and government business in China. Chou and Kissinger used the same kind, so did President Nixon and Chairman Mao. The man I was talking to was bulky, gruff, thick-necked with high-cropped graying hair that had a definite military look to it. He was Kuo Lei of the All China Sports Federation, international liaisons department, and he looked as solid and sure of his substance as the chair he filled. The question I had asked Kuo on this weekday afternoon in Peking had to do with whether Red China would compete in the Olympic Games. This, it turned out, would require an hour or more of Kuo's oratory to answer fully (including the precise dry translations done by Mr. Li). I sipped four mugs of superb jasmine tea during Kuo's reply. Mr. Li finished three bottles of yellow pop and Kuo himself smoked about 10 cigarettes. In rather abbreviated and less flowery form, here is what Kuo said:

"The purpose of international exchanges is to promote friendship among sportsmen. This is the direction of China. This is the correct direction. We think international sports organizations should promote the fullest use of sports for friendship." Kuo then explained the recent history of China's role in regard to world sport. His blunt fingers fluttered eloquently as he spoke, cigarette smoke bloomed in bigger and bigger clouds around his face until it seemed sometimes as if only his mouth existed. Kuo pointed out that the main problem was the "irrational and stupid" creation of two Chinas in world sport, The People's Republic of China and the Chiang Kai-shek government on Taiwan. This "blunder" occurred, said Kuo, after 1952 when Avery Brundage, then president of the International Olympic Committee, recognized "the swindlers, renegades and traitors of the Chiang Kai-shek clique" and let them into the Olympic movement along with Red China, which at that time held official membership on the IOC. This, said Kuo, flew in the face of other international agreements. " China," he snapped, "will never tolerate such a fool's trick. We see through the conspiracy to attempt to make two Chinas by means of sport...."

He went on, waving his hands through the smoke, "We raised protests for many years, but to no avail. So we suspended all contact with organizations that have recognized two Chinas. They retaliated by ordering their members not to have contact with us. They say that members of world sports federations cannot play against nations who are not members."

Kuo cleared his throat, then poked a finger skyward: "In this manner they have excluded 800 million Chinese from the world of sports." More calmly, he said that since the main perpetrator of this "blunder," Brundage, had stepped down as IOC president, "the new leaders need not feel guilty about past mistakes. If they rectify the IOC's two- China policy, we are ready to cooperate." He pointed out that now that Red China has the China seat in the United Nations it is only "realistic and true" for the IOC to follow the "inevitable tide of history" and do as the U.N. has done. And if this should come about? China will be happy to enter the Olympic Games of 1976, said Kuo.

But will China risk humiliation by entering athletes and teams that are not up to top competitive levels, and thus certain of defeat? Kuo did not falter for an instant. "Of course we hope that China reaches high levels of competitive abilities someday soon. But we must accept the fact that China is at a low level in many sports—just as we are low in industry and agriculture. You must understand, China is still a backward nation in many respects. Yes, we are confident we can catch up because such backwardness—in sports or in industry—was caused by the fact that China was staggering beneath the weight of feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism and imperialism for many, many years. For centuries. This we know; this you know.

"Thus," said Kuo with a note of final triumph in his voice, "it is not at all necessary that we be certain of victory—or even of coming near to victory—before we reenter world sports competition. We cannot wait, for example, until our basketball players are as good as yours before we have games with you. We would never be friends through basketball if we did. We see sports as a way of communicating with many countries. We wish to be friends of the world, not necessarily champions of the world."

Park Six and a Jointed Spike

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