US, China share joint sports stories

Human side deserves attention amid focus on diplomacy, expert says

A man was living in Japanese-occupied Northeast China when he longed to compete in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Liu Changchun, a sprinter, got help with funding and uniforms from fellow citizens and help from some people in the United States as he became the first Chinese athlete to compete in the Games.

The then-Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo announced that Liu would represent it at the Games, but Liu refused, saying he wanted to represent China, according to his page on, which cited a General Zhang Xueliang as providing 8,000 silver dollars for the trip to California.

Liu, who was born in what is now Liaoning province, was one day late to submit his application to participate in the 1932 Games. However, his US hosts welcomed him and accepted Liu’s application.

On July 31, 1932, Liu competed in the 100-meter preliminaries.

“The winner ran faster than me about four yards at the end; his time was 10.9 seconds. … In this competition, I got ahead before 60 meters; however, other competitors overtook me after 80 meters. I cannot get a better result due to exhaustion from a monthlong journey to the US, and a lack of exercise during the journey,” Liu said.

The story of Liu, who also competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was featured in the 2008 film The One Man Olympics.

In 1978, he served as a member of the Fifth Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and later as vice-chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee.

Liu’s saga illustrates the importance and impact of people-to-people diplomacy between the US and China going back more than a century, said Xu Guoqi, a professor in globalization history at the University of Hong Kong. Xu spoke at a recent discussion hosted by The Carter Center and the China Research Center of Atlanta.

Sports as shared history between Chinese and Americans goes back to the 1870s, when the Chinese Education Mission of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) sent 120 students to the US, Xu said.

Many of the students later returned to China and made significant contributions to China’s government, engineering endeavors and the sciences.

While studying in the US, Chinese students also participated in local sports, Xu said.

He shared the story of Zhong Wenyao, who served as coxswain (the person steering the boat) for Yale University’s crew team at the Yale-Harvard Boat Race (also known as the Harvard-Yale Regatta), a US sporting tradition that dates to 1852.

Standing 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 meters) and weighing 90 pounds (41 kilograms), Zhong commanded the crew to victory over Harvard on July 1, 1880.

“He was regarded as a giant hero for Yale,” Xu said.

Baseball win

Other Chinese students learned to play baseball, the American national pastime. While waiting for a boat to return to China in 1881, a group played a game against an Oakland team and won.

Around that time, some Chinese began to view sports as a means to build national strength. Yan Fu, a Chinese scholar who introduced Western concepts such as Darwin’s natural selection, lobbied for the promotion of sports. Since then, China has invested in sports.

As for the Olympics, Xu said China had three dreams: Participation, winning medals and hosting the Games.

Fifty-two years after Liu’s journey to the US, China won Olympic medals for the first time-at the 1984 Games, which were also held in Los Angeles. China won 15 gold medals, finishing fourth in the category.

And 24 years later, China realized its dream of hosting the international event with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Xu said people tend to just pay attention to the big picture of diplomacy but forget about the human and individual sides of history. “That’s more important when we talk about the US-China relationship, especially now,” Xu said.

Heng Weili in New York contributed to this story.