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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The young man hitched bashfully at his gray trousers. He was standing in the village schoolyard. Beyond, in the commune fields stretching for hundreds of acres in every direction, people were working in the hot sun, planting rice or tilling it. There were loudspeakers in some fields, broadcasting the quotations of Chairman Mao. In newly planted fields young girls sat beneath yellow parasols, wooden clackers ready in their hands to scare off birds that might land to peck up the new seeds; human scarecrows.

This was Tang Wang village, about 30 miles in the country beyond Shanghai, and Photographer Jerry Cooke and I and some of the American basketball delegation had sat through yet another typical introduction to our visit here. Beneath portraits of Mao and Marx, while we sipped green tea, the vice-chairman of the commune Revolutionary Committee ran through the statistics of the place: 23,000 residents, 1,787 hectares of land, 1.2 million fish in its ponds, 130,000 chickens, 68 cows, 18 tractors, etc. etc.

Now that was over and Cooke and I had asked the principal of the school if we could interview and photograph the best athlete, the hometown hero. Our idea was to see how such a young Chinese paragon of sport would compare to his counterpart from an American small town. We had been introduced, without much fanfare, to a boy from the school. He was wiry, not tall, had wide thin shoulders and was wearing a white shirt over a red undershirt. He was also wearing a small Red Guard badge (sign of membership in an honorary society to which about half the school's students belonged). His name was Ma Shan-pao, 18 years old, and though he was so shy he could barely speak, he told us through our intrepid interpreter, Mr. Li, that his best sports were high jumping, at which he has cleared 1.4 meters (4'7�"), and basketball. He also played soccer, volleyball and Ping-Pong. I asked Ma if he was quite good at all these games and he said, "I am not so good as I would want." I asked what were the most points he had scored in a basketball game and he said, "I do not know. Fewer than I would have liked, I suppose."

As we spoke a small open-mouthed crowd of children gathered. Figuring Ma would be too modest to answer for himself, I asked the group if it were true that he was the best player in school, the star. Mr. Li had to translate this question twice, but at last one boy seemed to understand. He said, "He is sometimes quite accurate at shooting the basketball." I said, "Well, don't all of you admire Ma and wish to be a star like him in athletics?" The crowd seemed dubious, hesitant. Another child answered at last, "He does not attract our attention too greatly."

I spoke to Ma: "Does your talent at sports make the girls like you more?" This was very puzzling. Mr. Li had to ask twice before Ma riveted his eyes squarely at the dirt at his feet and mumbled, "We play sports to promote health and advance socialism."

I said to him, "Would you say that your talent at sports makes you more of a hero to your friends than if you were not a good athlete?" Ma seemed to find this all but unanswerable also, but at last he said, "We practice all together. No one stands away from the others."

Then I asked Ma who his own hero was and he answered Chuang Tse-tung, China's famed Ping-Pong champion. I asked Ma if he wanted to be like Chuang when he grew older. Ma said, "I will let the motherland and the party make the decisions as to where I can serve the Revolution." With that I let Ma drift gratefully away to shoot baskets in the dirt of the schoolyard.

My idea for somehow digging a small-town sports hero out of the rural land of China seemed to be completely lost in translation. In one last effort to construct an image of such a person, I turned to the school principal and said, "Is Ma really your best athlete?" The principal replied, "He is quite good, not bad at all." I asked if Ma weren't considered some kind of an admirable example of personal success because of his superiority at sports, and the principal hesitated, asked Mr. Li for another clarifying translation, then replied with a sigh, "Ma is a rather accurate shooter of basketballs. But there is no special thought given to good sportsmen. They study in the usual manner. The other students do not pay so very much attention to them except to learn from them more about physical conditioning." I told him that in America many small towns look up to their high school sports heroes as if they were a special breed of mankind. The principal furrowed his brow and focused his eyes far out over the busy fields beyond the schoolyard. At last he smiled rather thinly and said, "This village is perhaps more interested in agricultural production records than in schoolboys' games."

On Being Amateur

Mu Lien-kuei is 24, a strapping 6'8" fellow with great gentle hooks for hands, a rugged forward who is one of the two dozen or so best basketball players in China. Mu had played against the touring U.S. basketball team in Hangchow and Peking with a collection of national and provincial all-stars. (As a measurement of China's level of basketball, the game ranks second in popularity behind Ping-Pong, but the U.S. team, a group of competent but not dazzling all-stars who had never played together before their tour of China, won all eight of their games with embarrassing ease. Their narrowest victory over their hosts was by 19 points.)

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