To Micki King and Bernie Wrightson, the gifts to Chinese divers were simple signs of friendship, objects to bridge the culture gap in a foreign land.
It was only later that they realized their two swimsuits and a towel helped propel the process of détente between the United States and China.
On Friday in Fort Lauderdale, 40 years after the historic trip to China by a group of American swimmers and divers, King and Wrightson were greeted by the Chinese athletes they had not seen since 1973. Wrightson was even presented with the red, white and blue towel he gave away in Beijing.
“My old friend pulls out this U.S. team towel and gives it back to me,” said Wrightson, Olympic gold medalist in 1968. “It was a treasured article he had saved all these years.”
The towel was donated to International Swimming Hall of Fame president and CEO Bruce Wigo, who arranged the 40th reunion of American and Chinese athletes and coaches to coincide with the Hall of Fame’s annual induction weekend. He was expecting maybe 25 Chinese to show up. Instead, nearly 200 came to remember their role in normalizing relations between the U.S. government of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and communist China leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai during a delicate period.
China, isolated since the 1949 revolution and embroiled in the Cultural Revolution since 1966, was nudging its door open to the West, and Nixon’s “ping-pong diplomacy” policy utilized sports to accelerate dialogue.
“There was animosity and mystery: We were imperialist devils to the Chinese, and they were Red fanatics to us,” Wigo said. “But thanks to this exchange, the indoctrination was broken down. They weren’t alien enemies after all. They became friends. They hugged each other.”
The hugging continued during the ISHOF reunion. King was approached by a Chinese woman she faintly recognized. During the 1973 “Friendship Through Sports” tour King had given two stars-and-stripes nylon Speedo suits to two Chinese divers to replace their droopy, heavy cloth suits. The Chinese divers never wore them because it would have been unfair to their teammates, a flashy show of superiority when everyone in China wore the same drab wardrobe — black swimsuits at the pool, navy or olive Mao suits at work. But they never forgot King.
“A young lady — well, we’re not so young anymore — came up to me on Thursday and said, ‘You gave me a special bathing suit in China and I can never express my gratitude for your thoughtfulness,’” said King, 68.
Starting a dynasty
The reunion coincided with the FINA AT&T USA Grand Prix diving meet, which China’s divers have dominated as they have the sport since supplanting the United States. in the early 1990s. They can trace the beginnings of their prowess to 1973, when the People’s Republic of China was still withdrawn from the Olympics and international competitions. By the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the former “sick man of Asia” showcased itself as a sports powerhouse.
During the three-week tour to four Chinese cities, the Americans held exhibitions and clinics. The skills of the Chinese were “rudimentary,” said Wrightson, 68.
“They took miles of film of us on high-speed 16-millimeter cameras and studied our movements, patterned themselves after us,” he said.