FAN Wei 樊维 and LU Zhouxiang 吕洲翔

Since prehistoric times people have taken to swimming like, well, ducks to water. Drawings of swimmers dating from the Stone Age have been found in the Cave of Swimmers in Egypt and references to swimming appear from 2000 BCE in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, and later in the Old English epic poem Beowulf.

In China swimming originated along the middle and lower reaches of the Huang (Yellow) River 黄河 where people developed the skills to move through and float on water. Swimming was not only a fundamental life skill but also a hunting and warring skill. The Chinese character for bath 浴 was found on oracle bones of the Shang dynasty 商 (1766–1045 BCE), and the word swim 泅 first appeared in annals of the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770–476 CE). Drawings on bronze ware from the period 475–221 BCE show scenes of people swimming in rivers. During the Han dynasty 汉 (206 BCE–220 CE), nobles bathed in the royal aquatic pool. During the Tang dynasty 唐 (618–907 CE), a swimming pool called the “aquatic hall” 水殿 was built for nobles’ use, and a ball game similar to modern water polo came into fashion there.

Whether a swimmer chose to wade, float, or dive, in ancient China swimming was considered a practical life skill rather than a recreational activity or sport.

Competitive Swimming in China

Competitive swimming— using mostly the breaststroke— began in Europe around 1800. England was the first modern society to develop swimming as a sport. Swimming came to China later in the nineteenth century and it wasn’t long before competitions were organized in coastal cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai, Tianjing, and Qindao. In 1887 the first 25 5 25 meter swimming pool was built in Guangzhou. In 1906 the Victoria Swimming Federation of Hong Kong started to hold an annual sea competition. Participants were Chinese and European residents of Hong Kong.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, swimming associations, such as the famous Nanhua Association and Dongshan Aquatics in Guangdong Province, were established in some coastal cities. Additionally, the China Swimming Research Society was founded in 1924.

Swimming competitions took place in the whole of China. However, swimming teams from the south were more competitive than those from the east and north. For example, in 1933 the Guangdong swimming team won the men’s group gold medal, and the Hong Kong swimming team won the women’s group gold medal at the Fifth National Games. YANG Xiuqiong 杨秀琼, a female swimmer from Hong Kong known as the “Chinese Mermaid,” won all the gold medals in the women’s individual events.

Olympic Swimming

In 1896, at the first modern Olympic Games, swimming was an Olympic event for men, with the 100-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle competitions being held in open water. As swimming gained popularity, more freestyle events were included, followed by the backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, and individual medley. In 1908 the world swimming association, Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), was established.

For a variety of reasons women were excluded from swimming in the early years of the modern Olympic Games. In 1896, 1900, 1904, and 1906, women could not participate because the “Father of the Modern Olympics,” Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, shared a belief commonly held during the Victorian era that women were too frail to engage in competitive sport. It was not until the 1912 Olympics that women finally got their way and were allowed into the Olympic swimming competition.

While the first modern Olympic Games had only four swimming events, three of them freestyle, the Olympics now have thirty-two swimming events: sixteen for men and sixteen for women. Each event has a maximum of eight swimmers. Preliminary heats in the 50-meter, 100-meter, and 200-meter events lead to semifinals and finals based on the fastest times. In relays and individual events of 400 meters or more, the eight fastest finishers in the preliminaries advance directly to the finals.

Welcome Home: China’s Young Foreign-born Athletes

His mother sits on a wicker chair on the viewing platform, remembering the icy mornings when as a girl she pounded length after interminable length of the same open-air pool.

She had gone on to enjoy success at the national level and then found her way to the United Kingdom. Her British husband gave their baby his copper-colored hair and Western complexion. The boy’s eyes, though, were a constant reminder that he was also Asian.

Even when his parents were giving his age in months rather than years, the boy was at home in water. His infant doggy paddle early changed into a breast stroke. He and his parents had a long wait before he could finally enter competition at the age of nine..

On a visit back to her hometown in China, his mother takes the boy to her childhood pool. It is an open-air, lido-style 50-meter pool beside the new football stadium. Tower blocks surround it and clanging from construction sites carries over the pool.

Some of his mother’s fellow squad members from the 1980s were now coaches, treading the deck they once looked up to. Each coach looks after a small elite squad with swimmers of different ages, a system designed to encourage competition between both coaches and their charges.

The boy emerges from the changing rooms, a slight white figure blinking in the afternoon light. When the other children arrive, their sun-browned bodies are in stark contrast with his.

The boy discovers that the pool isn’t heated, not even from the sub-tropical sun. But he grits his teeth and ploughs his lone 50-meter furrows. His new coach, who had herself achieved national success and then come to this province in search of opportunity, finds a way to tell him what to do. When she has seen enough, the coach joins his mother on the platform. The boy is strong, she says, and has determination, but he wastes power through poor technique.

He trains in China for three hours a day. His skin gets closer in color to that of the others and he and the Chinese children lose their shyness and began to practice each other’s languages. Some of the boys begin to see him as a rival.

The boy’s parents invite the coach for a meal. In the restaurant she confides that she believes him to have Olympic potential. She would like him to return on a regular basis and she will process him into the Chinese system. The mother casts her mind back to the time she went to the embassy to add her baby to her passport. The clerk had laughed and said, “He doesn’t look Chinese!” One day, she thought, perhaps he will have a choice.

In reality, China’s foreign-born sons and daughters are returning. Swimming coaches in Chengdu and Beijing train China’s foreign-born young swimmers every Easter and summer vacation. These children come from the United States and Canada and from the United Kingdom and other European countries to compete in sports where China is especially strong — swimming, table tennis, badminton, and gymnastics — and to take advantage of facilities and training methods unavailable in their birth countries. By the Olympics of 2020, these young athletes of the Chinese diaspora may show the world what they can achieve.

Craig GILL

An Aquatic Powerhouse

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded on 1 October 1949. Swimming was considered a valuable sport by the new government. In 1952 the first national swimming championships took place in Guangzhou. Seven teams participated. After the championships the national swimming and diving squad, consisting of twenty-five male and thirteen female athletes, was formed.

In 1953 WU Chuanyu 吴传玉 won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke at the First International Youth Friendship Games. It was the first time that the red flag of the PRC was raised at an international sporting event. As a result of participation in the Games, the Chinese sports authority realized the importance of the modern training techniques. In 1954 fifteen young swimmers were sent to the Sport University in Budapest to study for one and one-half years. The Chinese swimmers learned fast. Between 1957 and 1960 the world record in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke was broken five times by QI Lieyun 戚烈云, MU Xiang-xiong 穆祥雄, and MO Guoxiong 莫国雄.

In order to select and train elite swimmers at home, in 1955 three elite swimming schools were founded, one each in Beijing, Tianjing, and Shanghai. Boys and girls with swimming talent alternated a half day of study with a half day of training in these schools. By 1965 the number of such schools reached 1,800 with 150,000 young swimmers and 3,000 full-time coaches. After several years of hard training many young swimmers grew into stars.

During the initial years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) competitive sports were banned. However, China rejoined the Asian Games in 1974 and participated in the swimming competitions at the Seventh (1974) and Eighth (1978) Asian Games. Despite their training program Chinese swimmers lagged behind athletes from other Asian countries, including Japan, Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines.

In 1979 China renewed its seat in FINA. In 1983 China’s International Invitational Swimming Tournament took place in Guangxi Province. It was the first time in Chinese sports history that world-class swimmers from all over the world swam in China.

China participated in the Twenty-third Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 after an absence from the Olympics of over twenty years. Nineteen swimmers from China competed, but none of them finished among the top twenty swimmers in the world. After the Games the coach of the German Democratic Republic’s (East Germany’s) swimming team was invited to become the coach of the Chinese national swimming team. He introduced altitude training to Chinese swimmers for the first time.

In 1982 China won three gold medals at the Ninth Asian Games. It was the first time that the Chinese swimming team won gold medals at these games. However, Japan continued to dominate Asian swimming, and it was not until the Eleventh Asian Games in Beijing in 1990 that China won twenty-three gold medals in swimming and defeated Japan.

In 1988 the third Asian Swimming Championships were held in Guangzhou. Yang Wenyi clocked the world’s best time of 25.28 seconds for the women’s 50-meter freestyle. That was only world record in swimming held by an Asian at the time.

In 1990 the eleventh Asian Games were held in Beijing. Some Chinese swimmers used a tactic called “even speed.” The new tactic is more efficient than the traditional “fast, fast, fast,” “fast-slow,” and “slow-fast” tactics. Consequently, Zhuang Yong won gold medals in the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle, the 4 5 100-meter freestyle relay, and the 4 5 100-meter medley; Lin Li won the gold medal in the women’s 200-meter medley. Five Chinese became world-class swimmers.

One year later, at the sixth FINA World Championships, China won nine medals: four gold, four silver, and one bronze. At the -Twenty–fifth Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, China won four gold medals (see table 1) and five silver medals and broke two world records. At the seventh FINA World Championships in 1994, China won twelve gold medals and broke five world records.

Table 1: China’s Olympic Gold Medals in Individual Swimming Events

Year City Athlete Event
2004 Athens Luo Xuejuan Women’s 100-meter breaststroke
1996 Atlanta Le Jingyi Women’s 100-meter freestyle
1992 Barcelona Zhuang Yong Women’s 100-meter freestyle
1992 Barcelona Qian Hong Women’s 100-meter butterfly
1992 Barcelona Lin Li Women’s 200-meter individual medley
1992 Barcelona Yang Wenyi Women’s 50-meter freestyle

Source: Fédération Internationale de Natation

In the late 1990s Chinese swimming suffered doping scandals that seriously damaged China’s reputation in the sports field. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, China has made progress in the fight against doping in sport, including swimming, announcing that it planned to conduct more doping tests at the Beijing Olympic Games than have been conducted at any other Games— working around the clock and conducting 4,500 doping tests during the Games.

Primed to Win

The National Aquatics Center (NAC) provides a twenty-first-century venue for the swimming events of the Twenty-ninth Olympic Games in Beijing, held between 9 and 21 August 2008. Zhang Yadong, the head coach of the Chinese swimming squad, has primed his swimmers to swim for -gold — -and silver and bronze medals, too.

The Chinese male swimmers have trained with confidence. WU Peng 吴鹏, the silver medalist in the men’s 200-meter butterfly at the eleventh FINA World Championships in 2005 and the gold medalist in the men’s 200-meter butterfly at the Asian Games in Doha in 2006, is regarded as the most promising male swimmer who will compete at the Beijing Olympics. OUYANG Kunpeng 欧阳鲲鹏, China’s number one backstroker and the Asian record-holder in the 50-meter and 100-meter backstroke events, is also expected to win a medal in 2008.

China’s female swimmers gave their best-ever performances at the FINA World Short Course Championships in 2006, winning four gold medals and one silver. QI Hui 齐晖, the twenty-two-year-old veteran swimmer, who set the world record in 2002 and won three gold medals at the FINA World Short Course Championships in 2006, after failing to win a medal at the Olympics in 2004, was eager give her best performance in 2008 in breaststroke and individual medley events. The young swimmer WANG Qun 王群 shot to fame by defeating China’s breaststroke star Luo Xuejuan in the 100–meter event at the East Asian Games in Macao in 2005. She has given consistent performances in recent international competitions, winning a silver medal at the FINA Swimming World Cup in Berlin in 2006.

Nevertheless, judging from the past Olympic swimming results, China’s main rivals in 2008 will be the United States and Australia (see tables 2–4). However, because the five-time Olympic champion Ian Thorpe retired from competitive swimming in 2006, Australia’s chance of beating the United States seems slim.

Table 2: 2004 Olympics Swimming Medal Tally

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 12 9 7 28
2 Australia 7 5 3 15
3 Japan 3 1 4 8
4 Holland 2 3 2 7
5 Ukraine 2 0 1 3
6 France 1 2 3 6

Source: Fédération Internationale de Natation.

Table 3: 2000 Olympics Swimming Medal Tally

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 13 8 10 31
2 Australia 5 12 4 21
3 Holland 5 1 2 8
4 Italy 3 1 2 6
5 Ukraine 2 2 0 4
6 Romania 2 1 1 4

Source: Fédération Internationale de Natation.

Michael Phelps, the first American to win eight medals in one Olympics at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, has been a likely flashpoint in swimming events in Beijing in 2008, expected to win
the men’s 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter and 400-meter medley, the 4 5 100-meter and the 4 5 200-meter freestyle relay, and the 4 5 100–meter medley relay. Phelps’s teammate, Aaron Peirsol, from California, is expected to win the backstroke events in 2008. He won three gold medals in the men’s 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke and the 400-meter medley relay at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 and broke the 200-meter backstroke world record at the Montreal World Championships in Canada in 2006.

Table 4: Most Capable Gold Medal Competitors in the 2008 Olympics

Event Male Athlete Female Athlete
Medley Michael Phelps (United States) Yana Klochkova (Ukraine)
Katie Hoff (United States)
Freestyle Michael Phelps (United States)
Roland Schoeman (South Africa)
Crocker Ian (United States)
Jodie Henry (Australia)
Lisbeth Lenton (Australia)
Breaststroke Kosuke Kitajima (Japan)
Brooke Hanson (Australia)
Leisel Jones (Australia)
Backstroke Aaron Peirsol (United States) Natalie Coughlin (United States)
Butterfly Michael Phelps (United States)
Ian Crocker (United States)
Schipper Jessicah (Australia)
Lisbeth Lenton (Australia)

Source: Authors’ predictions.

China’s Modern Mermaids (and Mermen)

LUO Xuejuan 罗雪娟 was born in 1984 in Hangzhou. She was called the “queen of the breaststroke.” She began swimming at the age of seven. In 1996 Luo joined the Zhejiang provincial swimming team. She then represented China at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and won a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke, setting a new Olympic record of 1 minute 6.64 seconds. She was the only Chinese swimmer to win a gold medal at Athens. At the 2001 and 2003 World Championships, she won the world championship in the 50-meter breaststroke. As part of the team’s victory in the 4 5 100-meter medley relay in the 2003 World Championship, she set the record for the fastest women’s breaststroke relay split in history. She retired from competitive swimming in 2007.

ZHUANG Yong 庄泳 was born in 1972 in Shanghai. She is one of the best female swimmers in China. Like Luo she began her swimming training at the age of seven. She joined the Shanghai swimming team at the age of thirteen. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Zhuang won a silver medal in the women’s 100-meter freestyle. In 1989 she won the 100-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. In 1990 Zhuang swept the gold medals in the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle, the 4 5 100-meter freestyle relay, and the 4 5 100-meter medley relay at the Asian Games in Beijing. In 1991 she won a gold medal in the women’s 50-meter freestyle and silver in the women’s 100-meter freestyle at the FINA World Swimming Championships. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Zhuang won a gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle, China’s first gold medal in an Olympic swimming event. She also won two silver medals in the women’s 50-meter freestyle and the 4 5 100-meter freestyle relay in Barcelona.

YANG Wenyi 杨文意 was born in 1972 in Shanghai. She began her training in swimming at the Shanghai Sports Club in 1978 and broke national records for different age groups eighteen times at the beginning of the 1980s. She was selected as a member of the Shanghai swimming team in 1984 and joined the national team two years later. She won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

The “Chinese Mermaid”

In the 1930s YANG Xiuqiong was widely known inside and outside China as the “Chinese mermaid.” A national and international champion swimmer in several events, she was a popular role model for many women in the Nationalist Chinese republic.

Yang came from a peasant family in Yangwua village, Dongwan county, Guangdong Province on the mainland. The village was in a region of rivers and lakes, and children learned to swim as soon as they could walk. Yang was no exception. She swam when she was only two years old. When she was ten years old her father was employed as a lifeguard at the swimming pool of the Nanhua Sports Association in Hong Kong. Under his supervision, Yang swam every day and her swimming improved rapidly.

Yang was a member of the Hong Kong swimming team when the Fifth National Games took place in October 1933 at Nanjing, the capital of the Nationalist government. She broke four national records and won five gold medals. CHU Minyi, the Minister of the Administration Council of the Nationalist government and the chief organizer of the Games, imitated an ancient Olympic tradition by driving her around Nanjing in a chariot. Yang’s pictures and stories filled newspapers, magazines, posters, and illustrations. She became a national hero.

When the Sixth National Games were held at Shanghai in October 1935, Yang broke four national swimming records and won two gold medals. During her appearance, the price of a ticket increased twentyfold. If she did not appear in an event spectators asked for a refund. As a matter of course, she was selected as a member of China’s 1936 Olympic team. Yang’s outstanding performances made the Chinese proud, while her beauty and her gentle demeanor made her a focus of male desire. Her success in sport helped to construct a new femininity — fit and independent — which was radically different from the fragile and dependent women of the past. Yang was the perfect image of a modern woman for Nationalist China. After she married in 1937, Yang retired from swimming

FAN Hong and YAN Xuening

CHEN Yunpeng 陈运鹏 was born in 1935. He devoted his life to Chinese swimming. He was the national champion in 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter butterfly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He became a coach of the Chinese national swimming team in 1965 and was the head coach from 1981 to 1995. Under his coaching the Chinese team won four gold and five silver medals in the Twenty-fifth Olympic Games Barcelona in 1992. He retired in 1995 and then became a member of the World Swimming Coaches Association in 1998.

ZHANG Yadong 张亚东 was born in Zhejiang Province in 1964. He graduated from Beijing Sports University in the mid-1980s. He was appointed as the head coach of the Chinese national swimming squad after the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. He became famous when Luo Xuejuan, under his coaching, became a world champion in 2001 and 2003 and an Olympic gold medalist in 2004.

Source: Fan Wei, & Lu Zhouxiang. (2008). Swimming. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 59–64. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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