Last week a correspondent covering the Asian Games in Iran for Tokyo's The Mainichi received an urgent telephone call from his publisher, who demanded to know what was wrong with the powerful Japanese swimming team. "Not much," replied Reporter Yasu-Aki Suda. "It's the food, it's the beds in the village and it's the Chinese. Mostly, it's the Chinese." And so it went in Tehran, as Chairman Mao Tse-tung's shy and smiling athletes kept extending their hands in friendship and, to their increasing embarrassment, repeatedly ended up with fistfuls of medals.
No Chinese amassed a greater embarrassment of riches than woman gymnast Chiang Shao-yi, who won five medals, all of them gold.
"Congratulations," said an American photographer to Chiang's coach, Hsu Jen-chieh. "Now would it be all right if I take a picture of her with all of her medals?"
Hsu beamed approval. "Certainly you can—on the victory stand when they give her her last medal."
"No, I mean with all of her medals," said the photographer.
The Chinese coach recoiled. "All of her medals. No, no, no. Not like Spitz. Not like Mark Spitz. With one medal only."
By the end of the sixth day of the Games the Chinese were finding it increasingly difficult to avoid comparison to big winners such as Spitz. The People's Republic of China had won 57 medals, including 16 golds, and it seemed likely that with eight more days of competition and some of China's best events still to come, the harvest had barely begun. Only the Japanese, who have dominated the Asian Games since they began in 1951, had won more medals (97), but Japan had been wiped out in two of its strongest suits: diving and gymnastics. And it had seen the Chinese make inroads in a third, swimming.
The success of the Chinese was stunning for a nation self-exiled from international competition since 1954. That was the year Mao unofficially decided that the rest of the world could play its games with Taiwan and turned the motherland into a vast, private training ground for the 300 million athletes among China's 800 million citizens. Four years later he made it official and withdrew the People's Republic from all international athletic federations. Except for a few exhibition tours after Mao introduced Ping-Pong diplomacy in 1972, the Chinese have competed exclusively among themselves for the past 20 years.
Four years ago when the Iranians were awarded the Asian Games for 1974, they made it clear that they wanted the People's Republic, not Taiwan, to represent China. By an overwhelming margin, the Asian Games Federation agreed, threw out the Taiwanese and invited the mainlanders to replace them. The International Olympic Committee, which has a long history of supporting Chiang Kai-shek at the expense of all the Chinese athletes who do not live on his island, threatened to withdraw its sanction for the Asian Games. Numerous federations said they would boycott the Games and the generalissimo sulked.
Undaunted by the threats, the Iranians began quiet negotiations with IOC members, who finally agreed to approve the Games if the federations of the various sports would go along with the new China policy. After more negotiations, the federations slowly began unloading Taiwan to make room for the People's Republic. FINA, the federation that controls swimming, diving and water polo, proved the toughest group to crack. The mainland Chinese applied for membership, but stipulated that if Taiwan was not ousted from FINA, the federation could forget their application. By a two-vote margin, the 30 members of FINA's executive committee voted to forget it. Following 11th-hour negotiations with FINA President Dr. Harold Henning of the United States, the Chinese dropped the offending clause from their application, and the day before the Asian Games opened approval was granted for them to participate in the water-sports events as nonmembers.