FAN Wei 樊维 and LU Zhouxiang 吕洲翔

People have been taking the plunge —jumping off cliffs and rocks into water to amuse themselves—since ancient times. Historical evidence suggests that diving dates back at least to Greece’s ancient games. In Naples, Italy, a 2,500-year-old tomb depicts a man diving from a narrow platform.

The world’s earliest competitive diving may have taken place over a millennium ago in ancient China. During the Song dynasty 宋 (960–1279 CE), people performed a kind of fancy diving called “aquatic trapeze.” 水秋千. Participants took off from a rolling trapeze, turned somersaults in the air, then dived into the water. Aquatic trapeze-diving competitions were held in palaces and cities. Techniques included the “starting dive,” “somersault,” “body opening,” and “entry work.” Aquatic trapeze closely resembled modern competitive diving.

The first official diving competitions in the world took place at the aquatic palace in Dongjin, the capital of Song dynasty of ancient China between 1082 and 1125. ZHAO Jie 赵佶, king of the Song dynasty, watched these competitions. Diving developed further as an athletic discipline in seventeenth-century Europe as gymnasts practiced their acrobatics over water.

Although swimming and diving are commonly linked, diving has more in common with gymnastics. In the early 1800s Swedish and German gymnasts practiced their somersaults and twists over water. Their practices became known as “fancy diving,” a term that stuck until the early 1900s.

Male divers competed in the modern Olympic Games for the first time in 1904; their goal was to swim the farthest underwater after a dive. At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the pool was 100 meters long, and the diving tower was removable. In 1908 springboard diving was added to the original platform-diving event. Four years later, at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, fancy diving was introduced, and women were allowed to compete in their own platform event.

In the 1920s divers grew tired of the slow rotation from rigid takeoffs starting with a straight position, and the pike and tuck positions began to dominate, making multiple somersaults possible. From then on, the United States, instead of Sweden and Germany, began to dominate the sport. In 1924 the United States won all Olympic diving events except the bronze medals in the women’s platform event. In 1932 divers from the United States occupied every space on the Olympic medals podium in both the men’s and women’s events.

The 1928 Olympics included compulsory and voluntary dives. The compulsory dives were selected after each Olympics and were trained for during the four years before the next Olympics. This form of competition continued for twenty years. From 1949 to 1956, all dives on platform and springboard were voluntary, so with competitors opting for more difficult dives, the basic dives were rarely seen in competition. The conditions were then revised to include five required basic dives from the springboard, and restrictions on women’s diving were removed.

Several divers have won gold medals in both the springboard and the platform events at the same Olympics. American Albert White was the first in 1924, followed by American Peter Desjardins in 1928 in Amsterdam. He was the first diver to score a perfect 10.00. In the 1948 London Olympics, Victoria Draves of the United States was the first woman diver to win a gold medal in two diving events. Only Pat McCormick from America won gold in both the springboard and the platform diving events in 1952 and 1956 successively. In recent years diving has evolved rapidly, and great advances have been made in improving techniques and the complexity of dives.

Off the Springboard

Diving stages in China were first erected at coastal cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin in the late nineteenth century. In 1935 the Shanghai International Aquatic Games were held. England, United States, Germany, and China participated. The diving events involved standing and running plain dives from firm boards, and they were for men only. The United States took first place. At that time modern competitive diving in China was restricted by many factors, including politics, economics, and culture (few citizens were interested in diving).

At the Second Far Eastern Games in 1915, held in Shanghai, the scores of diving competition were determined by the distance of a dive. That kind of dive is now called a “forward dive straight.” Twelve years later, at the Eighth Far East Games in Shanghai, fancy dives from platform and springboard were performed, and China ranked first. In the same year the first Chinese book on diving (translated from English) was published by Shanghai Diligence Publishing Group. The book introduced techniques, training methods, and diving rules. But between 1937 and 1949, during civil war in China and World War II, the development of diving in China, understandably, declined.

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 and there was a new effort to promote physical education and sporting competition. The national swimming/diving championships took place in 1952 and the event attracted an audience of thousands. After the championships diving became a popular sport in some big cities.

The Soviet Union diving team visited China in 1954. It demonstrated complex platform diving skills for Chinese coaches and athletes. Chinese athletes began to develop their techniques. At the 1955 National Aquatic Games, many athletes performed a forward somersault 1.0 twist dive. By 1958 some divers executed even the forward somersault 3.5 twist dive. From then on “difficult,” “beautiful,” “skillful,” and “accurate” became the aims of diving in China.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, many swimming pools became fish ponds; most swimming and diving teams were dismissed. The national diving team, however, was spared. It trained at a Beijing indoor swimming pool along with the national swimming team until 1974, when the construction of a separate diving center was finished. In that year, the Chinese diving team won four gold medals at the Seventh Asian Games. Four years later, at the Eighth Asian Games in Thailand, China won all the gold and silver medals in diving. China’s diving team indisputably has been the dominant team in Asia since then.

Between 1973 and 1979 Chinese divers improved their skills and acquired clean-entry techniques. In the 1980s the Chinese diving team impressed many people with victories at international diving competitions, such as the London Diving Invitational in 1980, the U.S. Diving Invitational in 1981, the Eleventh International University Games in Bucharest in 1982, and the Second FINA Diving World Cup in Mexico in 1981. Between 1989 and 1992, the Chinese diving team won twenty gold medals at the FINA Diving World Cup.

Table 1: China’s Olympic Medal Tally (1992–2004)

Year Host city Gold Silver Bronze
1988 Seoul 2 (out of 4) 3 1
1992 Barcelona 3 (out of 4) 1 1
1996 Atlanta 3 (out of 4) 1 1
2000 Sydney 5 (out of 8) 5 0
2004 Athens 6 (out of 8) 2 1

Source: Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

China’s diving team has been called the “Dream Team” since the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. The team won five gold medals at Sydney, six gold medals in Athens later in 2004, and won all ten gold medals at the Fifteenth FINA Diving World Cup in 2006 (see tables 1 and 2). It is predicted that the “Dream Team” would win all eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Table 2: Fifteenth FINA Diving World Cup (2006)

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze
1 China 10 4 1
2 USA 0 3 2
3 Russia 0 2 1

Source: Féderation Intermantionale de Nanation Amateur (FINA).

Platform Beijing

Events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics include the 3-meter synchronized springboard (men and women), the 10-meter synchronized platform (men and women), the 3-meter springboard (men and women), and the 10-meter platform (men and women).

Alexandre Despatie of Canada has been considered the main threat to China in the men’s 3-meter springboard. At the age of thirteen, Despatie captured the hearts of Canadians when he won a gold medal in the 10-meter platform diving event at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and became an overnight celebrity. He won the gold medal in 3-meter springboard events in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, and gold at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona in the 10-meter platform diving event. That year he also won his first world championship in the 10-meter platform diving event and then traveled to Santo Domingo for the Pan Am Games and won three gold medals and one bronze. That success carried on to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he won the silver medal in the 3-meter springboard event. At the 2005 FINA World Championships, cheered by the hometown Montreal crowd, Despatie became the first diver to be world champion on all three boards.

China, however, has a new generation of diving stars, notably HE Chong 何冲 and LUO Yuton 罗玉通. As a world champion rookie, He Chong won the gold in the men’s synchronized 3-meter springboard at Montreal in 2005 and won the gold medal in the 3-meter springboard at the Champions Diving Tour in 2006.

In the women’s 3-meter springboard, the greatest chance of winning gold has been with either GUO Jingjing 郭晶晶; and WU Minxia 吴敏霞. Guo Jingjing was the gold medalist at the 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2004 FINA World Diving Cup; and the 2001, 2005, and 2007 World Diving Championships. In 2004 Guo Jingjing won the Olympic gold medal in the 3-meter women’s springboard in Athens and another gold medal in the 3-meter women’s synchronized springboard with Wu Minxia. Wu Minxia joined the national team in 1998; she was the gold medalist at the 2003 FINA Diving Grand Prix, 2003 FINA Diving Grand Prix, 2003 World Diving Championships, and 2004 and 2006 FINA Diving World Cup. These two outstanding Chinese divers are not only opponents but partners, and may cooperate to win for China the gold medal in the women’s 3-meter synchronized springboard.

On the other hand, Russian veteran Julia Pakhalina, one of the world’s best springboard divers, undoubtedly challenges the dominance of China in the women’s 3-meter springboard. She was the silver medalist at the 2006 World Championships with a score of 610.62, just 2.62 points behind Wu Minxia.

In the women’s 10-meter platform, Laura Wilkinson of the United States is the most capable opponent of the Chinese divers. She was the gold medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games, and the champion of the 2004 FINA Diving World Cup and the 2005 World Diving Championships. She is also the only woman in history to earn all three titles on the platform. She upset the heavily favored Chinese divers in the 10-meter platform dive at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. She is expected to perform well in 2008. Another powerful challenger is Émilie Heymans, a Canadian diver. She won a silver medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in 10-meter platform synchro and a gold medal at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona in the 10-meter platform.

Diving Duos at the Olympics Lanterns

Olympic synchronized diving (diving in pairs) began at the Sydney 2000 Games. Here’s how the International Olympic Committee’s website ( explains the competition and judging.

Competitors perform a series of dives and are awarded points up to 10, depending upon their elegance and skill. The points are then adjusted for the degree of difficulty, based on the number and types of manoeuvres attempted, such as somersaults, pikes, tucks and twists. A reverse 1.5 somersault with 3.5 twists, for example, is among the most difficult.

A panel of seven judges traditionally scores a dive, judging such elements as approach, take-off, execution and entry into the water. Nine judges assess synchronised diving. Four judge the execution of individual dives, and five assess synchronization — how the pairs mirror height, distance from the springboard or platform, speed of rotation and entry into the water.

However, the Chinese athletes, LAO Lishi 劳力诗 and JIA Tong 贾童, will fight for the gold medal in the women’s 10-meter platform against Laura Wilkinson and Émilie Heymans (see table 3). Lao represented China at the 2004 Summer Olympics, earning a silver medal in the 10-meter women’s platform and a gold medal in women’s 10-meter synchronized platform. The seventeen-year-old Jia Tong is a new hope for China’s diving team. She won the women’s 10-meter platform synchronized diving gold at the Eleventh World Swimming Championships in 2005 when she was fifteen years old. She also won the gold medal of the women’s 10-meter platform in the FINA World Cup in 2006.

Table 3: Gold Medal Competitors in 2008 Olympics

Event Men Women
3-m springboard Alexandre Despatie (Canada)
Dmitriy Dobroskok (Russia)
He Chong (China)
Luo Yutong(China)
Guo Jingjing (China)
Wu Minxia (China)
Julia Pakhalina (Russia)
10-m platform Lin Yue (China)
Huo Liang (China)
Hu Jia (China)
Laura Wilkinson (USA)
Jia Tong (China)
Émilie Heymans (Canada)
Lao Lishi (China)
Cheng Ruolin (China)
Synchronized 3-m springboard He Chong, Wang Feng (China) Guo Jinjin, Li Ting (China)
Guo Jinjin, Wu Minxia (China)
Synchronized 10-m platform Lin Yue, Huo Liang (China) Jia Tong, Cheng Ruolin (China)
Kang Li, Wang Hao (China)

Source: Author’s predictions.

Champions of the Plunge

GAO Ming 高敏 (b. 1970), the “Diving Queen,” began her diving training at the age of nine. She joined the Sichuan provincial team when she was eleven and the national team when she was fifteen. When she was sixteen, in 1986, she won the women’s springboard title in the Fifth World Swimming Championships. One year later, Gao became the women’s springboard champion at the FINA Diving World Cup in Holland. She then won gold in the springboard event at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, becoming the first Chinese woman athlete to win titles in three successive major diving competitions.

XIONG Ni 熊倪 (b. 1974), a legendary figure in Chinese diving, participated in four Olympics within thirteen years and won five medals: three gold, one silver, and one bronze. Xiong joined the Hunan provincial team at the age of eight. Four years later, he swept four titles in the National Diving Championships, a performance that earned him a place on the national team. At the age of fourteen, he won a silver medal in men’s platform diving at the Olympics in Seoul in 1988. Although his increasing weight forced him to shift from platform diving to springboard diving, Xiong went on to reach a new horizon in his career. At the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, he won a springboard diving gold medal, the first for China in this event. He also won a gold medal in the men’s 3-meter springboard synchronized diving at the Olympic Games in Sydney.

FU Mingxia 伏明霞 (b. 1978) won the platform-diving world championship in 1991 at the age of twelve, making her the world youngest diving champion of all time. She was also the world’s youngest gold medalist in Olympic diving events. When she won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she was only thirteen. Throughout the 1990s Fu dominated the sport with her picture-perfect dives. During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Fu won her fourth gold medal, joining Americans Pat McCormick and Greg Louganis as the world’s only quadruple Olympic diving champions. With four Olympic gold medals and one silver, Fu is one of the best divers China has ever produced.

TIAN Liang 田亮 (b.1979) is one of the youngest members of the national team. He brought glory to the team by winning gold in the men’s 10–meter platform in Sydney. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, he won the bronze medal in the 10-meter platform and a gold medal in the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform. In 2005 Tian was temporarily demoted to a provincial squad for violating the regulations of the China General Administration for Sport, and he then retired in 2007.

Guo Jingjing (b. 1981) began her training in diving in 1988. In 1992 she was selected to dive for the Chinese national team. Guo represented China at the 2004 Olympics, winning a gold medal in the 3-meter women’s synchronized springboard with Wu Minxia before finally winning her first individual Olympic gold medal in the 3-meter women’s springboard.

Wu Minxia (b. 1985) took up diving in the second Shanghai Diving School in 1991 and joined the Shanghai municipal diving team in 1995. She joined the national team in 1998. Wu won a gold medal in the first 3-meter synchronized springboard at the 2003 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain. One year later, at the Athens Olympics, with Guo Jinjin, she won a gold medal in the 3-meter synchronized springboard diving event.

ZHOU Jihong 周继红 (b. 1965) was the first Chinese woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10-meter platform diving event as well as the first diving gold medalist for China. In 1982 she joined the national team. After retiring in 1986, Zhou Jihong became the diving coach of the provincial diving team of Hubei. Four years later, she began to coach the national diving team. Since 2000 Zhou has been a head coach of the national diving team.

Source: Fan Wei, & Lu Zhouxiang. (2008). Diving. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 41–46. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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