Xu Haifeng receiving the first gold medal for China in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Xu Haifeng was the first athlete to win an Olympic gold medal for the People’s Republic of China. After retiring from his career as a champion sharpshooter, during which he won a number of golds in international competition, Xu went on to become a dedicated coach.

In taking the first gold medal of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles with a steely performance, sharpshooter Xu Haifeng also became a Chinese icon. He was not simply a winner, but the first winner of gold for his country since its return to the Olympic Games after a thirty-two-year absence due to controversy over the recognition of Taiwan. Hailed as a national hero upon his return for his timely victory in a sport demanding discipline and concentration, he went on to win many more titles and then to mentor younger champions, earning recognition not only as a top-tier athlete but also as a coach with a golden touch.

Xu was an unlikely Olympic hero; he’d been training in the sport for just two years, becoming a champion sharpshooter in Anhui Province in 1982 and winning his first national title in 1983. His only previous formal experience at shooting consisted of a week of military training in high school—although he reputedly was a crack shot with a slingshot during his childhood in Fujian Province.

Before joining the national shooting team (which was coached by Xu’s former high school teacher), Xu had been farming and selling chemical fertilizer in rural Anhui Province. Xu went to Los Angeles as the rookie on a team of six, expecting merely “to take part,” he later said. In the pistol events, attention gradually shifted from the Swedish world champion, Ragnar Skanaker, to the focused young man from China. Xu’s victory in the 50-meter free pistol shooting final, at age twenty-seven, changed his life.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee, called the occasion “a great day for China’s sports.” The absence of strong contenders from Eastern Europe due to the Eastern Bloc’s boycott of the Los Angeles Games certainly worked to the advantage of unknowns like Xu, but his win was no fluke, and he went on to prove his mettle in subsequent world competitions. In 1988, he won a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics in Seoul. Other wins accumulated over the years, including three golds at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, four golds at the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, and five golds at the Seventh Asian Championships in 1991.

Xu Haifeng’s Los Angeles feat was commemorated in a Chinese television play, Shots over Prada—a reference to the name of the city’s Olympic shooting range. He donated that first Olympic gold medal to China’s National Museum. Retiring from competition in 1994, Xu became the coach of the Chinese national women’s shooting team; one of his charges, Li Duihong, won a gold in Atlanta in 1996, and another, Tao Luna, took a gold in Sydney in 2000. He was head coach of the shooting team at the Athens Games in 2004, which won golds in three men’s events and one women’s event. In anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, Xu took over supervision of China’s modern pentathlon team. When the Games opened, Xu was listed as deputy team leader for pentathlon, at which Chinese came in fifth and tenth among the women and fourth for the men—noteworthy in this European-dominated event. Xu’s most prominent role at the 2008 Olympics, however, was his appearance in the main stadium during the opening ceremony, carrying the Olympic torch as it neared the end of its journey from Athens.

China’s State Sports Commission awarded Xu a National Sports Medal of Honor in 1984, and he was named one of the nation’s top ten athletes twice, in 1984 and 1986. Newsweek magazine’s assertion that, “Posterity will forget that a Chinese fertilizer salesman won the first gold medal of the 1984 Summer Games” was wrong: A quarter century since the event that catapulted him to fame, Xu Haifeng remains a household name in China.

Further Reading

Brownell, S. (2008). Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics mean to China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gao Dianmin. (1984, July 29). The moment when China’s Olympic zero is broken. Xinhua News Agency.

Morris, A. (2004). Marrow of the nation: A history of sport and physical culture in Republican China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Source: Polumbaum, Judy. (2009). XU Haifeng. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2530–2531. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

XU Haifeng (X? H?if?ng ???)|X? H?if?ng ??? (XU Haifeng)

Download the PDF of this article