The "flying fish" swimmer who became the PRC’s first Olympic competitor in 1952
In 1952, when Wu Chuanyu (吴传玉) hit the water of the outdoor Helsinki Swimming Stadium in the qualifying round of the 100-meter backstroke, the small crowd watching by the poolside likely did not know they were witnessing history.
A new flag was flying beside the pool that day, as the athlete nicknamed China’s “flying fish” became the first Olympic competitor to represent the new People’s Republic of China. As in 1932, when runner Liu Changchun became the first athlete to compete for the Republic of China at an Olympic Games, Wu alone represented the 600 million people of another new Chinese nation, tasked with introducing the communist state to the world.
Wu and the PRC’s participation were historic, but the road to the 1952 Games had not been smooth. Just four years earlier, at the 1948 Games in London, Wu, born to Fujianese parents in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), had competed for the Republic of China, led by the Nationalist government that later fled to Taiwan in 1949.
The delicate political situation between the Nationalists and Communists, each claiming to represent the entirety of China, played out in the arena of international sport. Historian Xu Guoqi has argued that “Beijing’s principal interest in the Olympic Games and Olympic movement was to seek legitimacy in the world arena in the face of the recognition by Western countries widely commanded by the Nationalist government in Taiwan.”
With encouragement from the Soviet Union, Feng Wenbin, Secretary of the Communist Youth League, suggested for Premier Zhou Enlai to petition the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow the PRC to attend the 1952 Games, as long as the Nationalists were barred. “Even if we don’t do well in the competition, it is not important,” he told the Chinese premier.
The IOC struggled with the complex political tug-of-war. Despite claims by its then president Johannes Erdstrom, that “the Olympic organization must ignore racial, religious and political questions and that its aim is the union of the youth of the World,” the Olympic “China Question” was fraught with geopolitical significance.
In June, with the Games just a month away, the IOC passed a proposal that barred both Taiwan and Beijing from attending, but this was opposed by both sides and their Cold War allies. Eventually, on July 18 (just a day before the opening ceremony of the 1952 Games), the IOC extended invitations to both governments.
While the Nationalists refused to attend in protest at the PRC’s inclusion, the government in Beijing hastily sent 38 men and two women on their way to Finland. Only Wu made it in time to participate in his event. The football and basketball teams played non-competitive friendly matches instead.
“It took three days and three nights to get there,” Chen Chengda, a member of the football team, recalled to Reuters in 2008. “We raised the flag of the new China in the village, where we were put in with the Soviets in a separate ‘Socialist camp.’” This marked the first time the PRC’s flag was raised at an Olympic Games.
Wu was able to compete, though he only managed to place fifth in his 100-meter backstroke heat and failed to qualify for the next round. Wu, a third-generation immigrant who couldn’t speak a word of Chinese when he first visited his ancestral country in the 1940s, wrote to his parents in Indonesia: “I feel how glorious and proud it is to be Chinese, to be a Mao Zedong era young sportsperson. To contribute something to the motherland makes me incomparably happy and proud.”
Wu went on win the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the fourth World Festival of Youth and Students in Bucharest in 1953, the first victory of a PRC athlete in a major international sporting event. Tragically, he died in a plane crash a year later in 1954, but his legacy lived on.
In 1955, Zhou Enlai stopped by the home of Wu’s parents when on a visit to Indonesia, telling them, “Your son died a glorious death.” During one of his swims in the Yangtze River in Wuhan, Mao told swimmers on China’s national team to learn from Wu, asking them, “It’s already been more than 3 years [since Wu’s death]; how has no one overtaken Wu Chuanyu yet?” Wu’s national record in the 100-meter backstroke lasted eight years, until 1962.
It would be another three decades before the PRC’s flag was once again flown at an Olympic Games. Although the IOC recognized the PRC’s Olympic Committee in 1954, it also continued to acknowledge the ROC’s committee in Taiwan.
Before the 1956 Games, the PRC delegation withdrew at the last minute in protest at the ROC’s participation, and formally broke off relations with the Olympic movement in 1958, denouncing Avery Brundage, then head of the IOC, as “a tool of the imperialistic State Department of the United States.” It would not return until 1979, when international recognition of the PRC began to grow.
But the 1952 Olympics served its purpose to China’s leaders. As Premier Zhou told the Olympic athletes before they set off for Finland, “It is a victory for the PRC when its flag is flying at the Olympic Games. Being late is not our fault.”