The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has in the last twenty years or so, become a major player in the summer Olympics. This year at the Games in London, the PRC brought a team of 396 competitors and is currently atop the leaderboard in medals won. It is interesting to look back to China’s very humble origins in the Olympic movement and see just how far this nation has come.
Unlike the United States, Great Britain, and the major European nations, China was nowhere to be found when the modern Games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896. Organized sport hardly existed in China. Christian missionaries introduced basketball in 1898, and China won the basketball championship at the Far Eastern Sports Meet in 1924. European-style football, or soccer, was introduced shortly after 1900, and the first college championship tournament was held in 1904, but China did join FIFA until 1931. Volleyball was also introduced shortly after 1900, and the first men’s tournaments were held in 1911. In 1924, women’s volleyball was demonstrated as the national sports meet.
By the 1930s, China was a regular participant in the Far Eastern Games, the predecessor to the contemporary Asian Games, and had been accepted into the International Olympic Committee (IOC). China’s desire to compete before the world in the Olympic Games stemmed from its thirty years of humiliation and subservience to its Asian rival, Japan, and the history of scornful treatment by Western powers that had almost resulted in the partition of China at the end of the 19th century.
As the Summer Games of 1932 drew near, China faced serious political problems caused by Japanese intervention into and absorption of Manchuria, China’s most northeastern province. Nevertheless, Chinese sports officials determined to send athletes to Los Angeles for the 1932 summer Games.
As it turned out, China was represented in Los Angeles by only one competitor, sprinted Liu Changchun, and his coach, Seng Jungfu. Liu was 22 and already well-known in China sporting circles for his outstanding performances at both national and international meets since 1929. His participation in the Los Angeles Games was complicated by the fact that he was from Dalian, a port city now part of Manzhouguo (Manchukuo), a part of China that Japan then controlled. The Japanese announced that Liu would be representing Manzhouguo at the Games, but Liu announced firmly that because he was ethnically Chinese, he would “not represent the false Manzhouguo….” The Japanese backed off and Liu and his coach Seng left for Los Angeles on July 8, 1932. They arrived on July 29, just a day before the Opening Ceremonies. They were greeted by a large crowd of Chinese-Americans, and throughout the Games, they were treated as major celebrities. On the field, however, Liu failed to qualify for the finals of his two events, the 100 and 200 meter dashes.
Liu’s warm reception was certainly tied to the sympathy for his nation engendered by the American disapproval of Japan’s aggression in the Manchurian crisis, as it was called in the United States. Clearly, the passage of time and a new set of circumstances in Asia marked a significant change in the way that China had been regarded a generation earlier. China sent somewhat larger delegations to the 1936 Games in Berlin and 1948 Games in London, but the situation became much more complicated with the victory of the PRC in the Chinese civil war in 1949. The PRC sent a delegation of about 40 to Helsinki for the summer Games in 1952, but only one athlete, a swimmer, actually competed. Political wrangling over how the PRC and the Republic of China (Taiwan) should participate complicated matters for the next twenty or more years, but that is another story for another time.
John E. Findling is professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Southeast. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas and has pursued research interests in world’s fairs and the modern Olympic movement for nearly 30 years. Among his recent publications are Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement (2004), coedited with Kimberly Pelle and Events that Formed the Modern World: From the European Renaissance through the War on Terror, coedited with Frank W. Thackeray.