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May 14, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright May 14, 2008. Used by permission.


Like many of the audience in China watching the round-the-clock CCTV broadcasts about the terrible earthquake in Sichuan, I thought back to the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century, the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, which also registered 7.8 on the Richter scale, but which killed 240,000 people. It occurred during the Montreal Olympic Games, which China did not attend because the Sports Commission was still mired in the Cultural Revolution and could not respond to friendly overtures. China would not be re-admitted to the International Olympic Committee until 1979. A section of the biography of He Zhenliang, the International Olympic Committee member in China (since 1981), evokes a vivid sense of life in those times and puts into context the tremendous changes inChina over the last 32 years. Right now I am getting instantaneous e-mails from my friends and family in America, who are watching live broadcasts from China on their TVs. In Montreal in 1976 there were no live TV broadcasts and no direct-dial telephone calls to China, and it was several days before the Chinese delegation knew that the earthquake had not harmed their families in Beijing.

The biography was written by He’s wife, Liang Lijuan, a journalist. It was translated into English by myself and published by the Foreign Languages Press as He Zhenliang and China’s Olympic Dream (2007). Unfortunately this section, along with almost all of the other sections about the Cultural Revolution, were deleted from the English translation because they were said to be personal stories not relevant to China’s sport history and of little interest to foreigners.

It is interesting to note that the Zhuang Zedong mentioned here was the same table tennis player whose friendly interactions with the American Glenn Cowan at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan initiated the American team’s visit to China, the first official American delegation of any kind to visit Chinasince 1949. Illustrating the craziness of those times, five years later he was obstructing “ping pong diplomacy.”