China and swimming. Two words which when used in the same sentence, have raised questions about honesty and mystery; integrity and surprise. This story is not intended to raise political views or even make statements about “right” or “wrong”…this is just a story about a man and his passion for swimming.
Mao Zedong (or also Tse-tung) was the Chairman of the Communist Party of China for over 3 decades (1945-1976). He was a swimmer. Chairman Mao was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mao was a swimmer. He was born the son of a farmer, and at a very early age he left home to further his education and he eventually ended up in Beijing where he worked as a part-time librarian, and he was a swimmer.
Mao Zedong was, and still is a very controversial figure in China. Beijing is full of reminders of his legacy…from posters to portraits-sculptures to statues, we are constantly reminded of “the Chairman” all throughout Beijing and the rest of China. Mao was, however, a personality many people do not know…he was a swimmer.
Fast Forward 1994. World Swimming Championships in Rome, Italy. China completely dominated in the women’s events by winning 12 Gold Medals, 6 Silver and 1 Bronze. Even though they had no medals on the men’s side (except in diving), they still won the overall medal count when compared to the United States with both men and women combined.
Fast Forward 2008 Olympics and 2011 World Championships. After being forever “overlooked” by many Olympic and International organizing committees, China has recently put on some elaborate and super-organized events for our aquatic sports. Furthermore, the chinese are back–both men and women. Winning Olympic Medals, setting World Records and training in “western” facilities both in Australia and the United States.
Mao was the founder of everything Communist known to China, but we must ask the question, “was he also the first true ‘swimming personality’ of China?”
In 1949, after the creation of the Communist China which we all know today, Mao quickly built his personal paradise by ordering the construction of many buildings next to the present day “Forbidden City”…the most important inclusion being an indoor swimming pool! The swimming pool is said to have been approximately 30 meters long and 6 lanes in width. Mao loved swimming. He would encourage his fellow officials to swim alongside Mao because it promoted health and confidence. Mao would spend much of his time poolside, contemplating world politics and writing poetry.
One of the more incredible swimming stories during Mao’s lifetime came in August 1953 during a “summit-discussion” between Chinese and Soviet leaders. The two key players…China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. On August 3rd, 1953, Nikita might have taken an unplanned step towards “losing” credibility and power to Mao when Nikita was given a pair of green swimming trunks and asked to join Chairman Mao in the Chinese rulers outdoor swimming pool. Mr. Khrushchev was not at all a good swimmer. Historians describe an embarrassing, yet comical scene where the Chinese ruler was swimming up and down the pool, speaking in fast Chinese while translators scurried frantically around the pool…meanwhile, Mr. Khrushchev stayed in the shallow end until Chairman Mao “invited” him to the deep end! What followed is not always agreed upon, but some kind of “flotation device” was given to the Soviet leader and their discussions continued. Henry Kissinger is known to have said the floatation device was WATER WINGS…what a sight it must have been! Two oversized world leaders, splashing around talking about who to conquer, or even worse!
Another very interesting and historic swimming episode of Mr. Zedong occurred in 1966 when he made a surprise appearance at the Yangtze river crossing which he had already performed several years prior (see video). There was chaos and enthusiasm, and weeks later the river swim became a media event. He was the 1960’s version of the present day super chinese swimmer Sun Yang.
You can call him what you want. Mao may be many things to many people in both a political and humanitarian definition. Mao was, however, a swimmer. And it seems a pretty good one. Chinese food for thought….
This poem was written by Chairman Mao — it is entitled: SWIMMING
I have just drunk the waters of Changsha
And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
Let the wind blow and waves beat,
Better far than idly strolling in a courtyard.
Today I am at ease.
“It was by a stream that the Master said–
‘Thus do things flow away!’ “
Sails move with the wind.
Tortoise and Snake are still.
Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.
Chris Morgan is a swimming coach in search of the most creative workouts. Follow him on Twitter @swim4chris