China's swimming legacy makes splash
Updated: 2013-05-13 11:44
By Caroline Berg in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (China Daily)
Li Zhende (front), the lead actor in Diving Girls, holds the Esther award at the ceremony at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida on Friday. Zhang Yuwei / China Daily
When Bruce Wigo saw the Chinese movies Enter the Water Dragon (1959) and Diving Girls (1964), he was amazed by the quality of swimming and diving that existed during decades when China's borders were closed.
"I don't think the rest of the world really knew anything, certainly at least not in the West, of what was happening in Chinese swimming up until the 1970s, when we met them," said Wigo, who is president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
He was referring to the US State Department's Friendship Through Sports mission to China in 1973, a year after US President Richard Nixon's historic visit.
ISHOF, as the Florida-based Hall is known, on Friday honored the two Mao-era films with its inaugural Esther awards. Named for American swimmer and movie star Esther Williams, the awards recognize outstanding achievements in show-business portrayals of swimming as fun, healthy and essential to water safety.
Williams was a teenager when she became a US national amateur champion in 1939, though she lost a shot at Olympic glory when World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 Summer Games. She became a sensation onscreen, appearing in over two dozen Hollywood movies, most notably the 1940s and '50s "aquatic musicals" she pioneered to showcase her athletic talent.
Williams, now 92, was inducted into ISHOF in 1966 and received its Gold Medallion Award in 2006.
"I love this event," Edward Bell, Williams' husband, told China Daily after presenting the awards to cast and crew members of the two Chinese movies at Friday's ceremony on his wife's behalf. "This country should know that China made great swimming movies and it's a great swimming country."
"Enter the Water Dragon" was based on the careers of real-life swimmers Mu Chengkuan and his son, Mu Xiangxiong.
Diving Girls, also a true story, depicts an up-and-coming Chinese team of female divers. The movie encouraged Chinese youth of the time to train hard, aim high and compete internationally.
"No records we can't break," an anthem is sung during a montage of Chinese divers performing from high platforms. "No peaks too high."
Today, Chinese men and women divers routinely rank at or near No 1 in international competition.
In Enter the Water Dragon, another anthem encourages the Chinese "to win glory for the motherland".
Mu Chengkuan became a national hero in 1941 when he accepted a challenge to compete against foreign swimmers and won - a feat portrayed in the ISHOF-recognized film.
Mu decided to pursue a swimming career after he noticed the dominance of Japanese and Filipinos in the sport at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, particularly the breaststroke. At the time, the Chinese were derided as "the sick man of Asia", but Mu considered his physique similar to those other Asian swimmers'. His eventual victories over Western athletes boosted Chinese patriotism.
ISHOF president Wigo pointed out during the awards ceremony that both Williams and Mu Xiangxiong never had the chance to compete in the Olympics. In 1956, over a decade after war dashed the American's hopes, a boycott by the Chinese Olympic team prevented Mu from competing in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia.
Whereas Williams turned professional and wound up in show business, promoting her sport, Mu kept competing.
With a political dispute having kept its athletes from participating in Melbourne, China organized a swimming match in Shanghai on the same day in December 1956 that the Olympic final in the men's 200-meter breaststroke was taking place. According to reports, Mu's time was faster than that swum by gold medalist Masaru Furukawa of Japan.
When the underwater breaststroke style Mu used was ruled illegal after Melbourne, he adjusted his form and went on to break the listed world record in the 100-meter breaststroke three times, in 1958-59, including a personal best of 1:11.1. China's 1958 withdrawal from the International Olympic Committee, however, meant that Mu's times weren't recognized by the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, which governs the sport.
Wigo first heard of the Mu father-son team and other accomplished Chinese swimmers and divers after diver Tian Liang was inducted into the Hall in 2012. Around that time, the idea surfaced of arranging a 40-year reunion for members of the US and China swim and diving teams that took part in the Friendship Through Sports initiative.
As he sifted through the ISHOF archives and memorabilia from the 1973 trip, Wigo discovered a new realm of swimming history, and the reunion plan turned into a four days of events and commemorations.
"We said, 'Gee, these people have all the qualifications to be in the Swimming Hall of Fame, but we never heard about them," Wigo recalled. "Now we have all these people coming over from China, so this is the ideal year to induct them into the Hall of Fame."
Between Thursday and Sunday, the Fort Lauderdale institution hosted reunions of the 1973 and 1980 swimming and diving teams from each country; unveiled an exhibit on China's swimming and diving history; inaugurated the Esther awards; hosted a presentation by retired US ambassador Nicholas Platt on the significance of the 1973 sports exchange; and inducted its 2013 class of ISHOF honorees. Nearby, the four-day FINA/USA Diving Grand Prix showcased the skills of over 120 divers from the US, China and 19 other countries.
The Mu father and son were inducted in the ISHOF Pioneers category, as was Chi Lieh Yung (Qi Lieyun), the first Chinese to officially set a world record - with a FINA-recognized time of 1:11.6 in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1957.
In his induction speech, Mu Xiangxiong recalled going into a temporary state of shock when he got the phone call about the honor.
"I decided I should chew my finger," the visibly moved 78-year-old said. "If it hurts, then this must be real. If I don't feel anything, then this must be a dream."
Mu thanked Wigo and ISHOF publicly for their work, which brought together about 200 people - mostly Chinese - for the four-day reunion festivities.
"Without your passion and research, we would never have achieved this result," he said.