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.
Among those at the clinics were Li Kongzheng and Li Hongping, who became Chinese Olympians and now coach diving teams at the University of Michigan and USC, respectively. They were at the reunion, too.
“The Chinese went from not knowing how to do a basic front dive to owning the world,” said King, 1972 Olympic gold medalist.
Ingrid Daland, a U.S. coach, chatted with German divers at the FINA meet where Chinese divers swept six golds on Saturday and told them she was part of the reunion.
“They said, ‘See what you guys did?’ ” Daland joked.
David Han got backstroke tips in 1973 when he was a 24-year-old in Shanghai. Frank Heckl, former world record-holder, showed him Exer-Genie equipment.
“We had never even seen swim goggles,” said Han, whose U.S. contacts enabled him to attend the University of Alabama. He is now aquatics manager for the city of Memphis. “They were so helpful. We knew they were not the monsters portrayed by the Communist Party.”
Han and his teammates swam mostly in rivers during the Cultural Revolution when Mao, an avid swimmer, declared pools to be bourgeois enclaves.
“China had been closed and the Cultural Revolution was a complete shutdown,” said Hilary Tsai, an 18-year-old swimmer in 1973. “We heard no news of the outside world. Libraries were locked. When the U.S. team came, I remember how friendly they were, the bright colors, the American flag. We were excited to swim in the same pool with Americans.”
A system emerges
Heckl and U.S. coaches told the Chinese they needed to double their training volume. Today, a rigorous regimen from a young age is a hallmark of Chinese athletes.
“We talked about diet, physiology, technique,” said Heckl, 62, an orthopedist. “We had a system to make Olympic champions. From that, they created their own very successful system.”
Daland was asked by Chinese women coaches what Americans did during their menstrual cycle. Daland opened her purse and “showed the Chinese their first tampon,” wrote U.S. diplomat Nicholas Platt in his book China Boys. “In Chinese tradition, objects were never placed in the orifices of the body except at death.”
The American delegation was taken to banquets, acrobat shows, a commune, a porcelain factory, the Peasant Institute and a revolutionary opera entitled Battle of the Plains.
“We could have been on the moon, that’s how odd it all was,” King said. “No locks on any doors because we were assured nobody steals in China.”
Madame Mao hosted the group at a basketball game. She wore an elegant dress, patent leather shoes and a Rolex watch.
“We were stunned,” Platt said Friday at the reunion. “Her appearance made front pages. This was not the severe harridan we were used to. There was lots of maneuvering in the leadership. This was an endorsement of rapprochement with the U.S.”
Platt said he couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors. That first exchange in 1973 followed Nixon’s 1972 Beijing visit and American table tennis players’ 1971 visit.
“It was an opportunity for interaction despite a stream of hateful propaganda,” he said. “Those people-to-people contacts led to the biggest bilateral relationship we have in the world today.”
There were ramifications. U.S. athletes and coaches were warned by the Amateur Athletic Union that the tour would violate FINA’s Rule 53 barring competition with non-member China. Mark Spitz, fresh off his 1972 gold rush and busy with endorsement deals, declined to go. Those who chose to go were careful not to race against the Chinese and decided they would retire from sport. They were suspended from the AAU and U.S. Olympic Committee.
But the delegation was praised by Kissinger for its contribution to “Sino-American understanding and world peace.” During the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, China sided with the United States. They held a training session in Fort Lauderdale and dual meets.
A swimmer from Shanghai approached Heckl on Friday and in pantomime and broken English reminded him of the time they swam together.
“We didn’t just share swimming knowledge 40 years ago,” Heckl said. “We asked each other, ‘What’s your life like, what’s your country like?’ That trip changed me from the inside out.”