Skip to main content
Original Issue

And smile, smile, smile

Perhaps it was the kind of occasion that would become ordinary in the future, but last week it was still an odd experience for an average man and a downright shocking one for any devout apostle of the doctrines of doomsday fears that have dominated Sino-American relations for these past 25 years. For there they were, an assembly of gymnasts from the People's Republic of China in Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most American bastion of them all, and everybody was happy.

Other Chinese men and women had preceded them but never to such a setting. The gymnasts were making their first appearance in the free world—and the first stop on a 21-day, five-city tour of the U.S.—in the same Garden where so many a Knickerbocker and Ranger has fought against the sworn foe from Boston, where Billy Graham has snatched untold thousands from the devil's hot clutch, where Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali, where a standard poodle named Acadia Command Performance won the 1973 Westminster Dog Show and where the aroma of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, suspended for this night of Chinese-American competition, hung like swamp gas in the corridors.

On folding chairs at the edge of the floor sat dignified men and women wearing the dark gray baggy unisex suits of Mao Tse-tung's egalitarian society. From the rafters of the Garden hung the flag of the People's Republic, a scattered circle of gold stars on a huge vermilion field, and beyond that grand red symbol of purest Communism hung electric symbols of purest capitalism—illuminated signs advertising beer, hair tonic, Coca-Cola and automobiles.

From the beginning of a night of un-tempered cordiality, the Chinese emphasized love instead of war, constantly putting forth the slogan: "Yu-i ti-i; pi-sai, ti-erh," which is post-Cold War rhetoric, a Chinese release explained, for "Friendship first, competition second." It was dark and rainy outside, but a surprising crowd of 13,857 was on hand, perhaps half of it New York Orientals. When the teams were introduced, the Chinese, smiling radiantly, marched smartly to the center of the floor. The audience erupted in friendly waterfalls of applause that flowed louder and louder over the visitors, until the cheery Chinese raised their hands and clapped back. Smiles spread everywhere. The Chinese national anthem was played and the entire grinning Garden rose to attention. Then Douglas P. Murray, a genial bearded Sinologist from Yale who is vice-president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the co-sponsor (with the U.S. Gymnastics Federation) of the American tour, spoke a warm introduction in both English and lilting Chinese. Finally, the two teams swarmed around each other in a display of almost hyperkinetic amiability. There was an enormous amount of fanny-patting, shoulder-squeezing, arm-entwining, finger-interlacing and general all-round international sunshine. The Garden was one large warmhearted Smile Button.

It must be said that no one really knew exactly what to expect of the Chinese as a world force in this sport. Since Mao's revolution won the Chinese mainland in 1949, their gymnasts had remained secreted behind the Bamboo Curtain. Once, in 1962, the curtain parted briefly and they emerged for a meet among 30 nations in Prague, where they surprised everyone by finishing third. Then they returned to China and did not reappear until last July when they competed in Yugoslavia (and won). They also performed before President Nixon's entourage during his visit to Peking in 1972 and were seen on U.S. television. Gene Wettstone of Penn State University, the U.S. men's team coach, said: "I saw them in Prague, and they were merely competent, but from what I saw on TV last year, they have improved a great deal. They are on a par with our teams—and maybe they are a lot better than that. We really don't know."

Well, the suspense disintegrated almost immediately. The Chinese had not managed to produce a secret formula for building gymnastic giants, nor was there an Oriental Olga Korbut to be unveiled this night. The Chinese men proved to be sound, impressive competitors, not as brilliant as the Japanese, but slightly better than the American men. The women were generally mediocre, a cut below the Americans, who themselves have a so-so reputation when compared with top world-class performers (although the Garden appearances of three U.S. teenagers—Debbie Fike, 16, Nancy Thies, 15 and Diane Dunbar, 14—may be a harbinger of better things to come). When the long evening of competition was over, the Chinese men's team had eked out a marvelously diplomatic victory over the U.S., 164.4 to 164.2, and the American women were judged the winners 111.9 to 109.4.

But the scores really did not matter. Even though there was a mild air of drama to the meet—the men's competition remained undecided until the last gymnast had performed his final giant swing on the horizontal bar—there was not the remotest hint of the kind of bitter rivalry that had marked the recent U.S.-Russia basketball series. Indeed, after each and every single competitive event performed by each and every single American, a covey of Chinese would rush out to embrace, hug, shake hands, congratulate and admire the U.S. contestant for the wonderful thing he or she had just performed. The Chinese did not miss a single chance, not one, so this display occurred perhaps 40 times in the course of the meet. The atmosphere of relentless friendliness was almost oppressive at times, but many scenes were downright inspirational:

There was little Diane Dunbar, from Pleasanton, Calif. grinning with her braces glinting at little Ting Chao-fang, 26, from Anhwei, sharing a chair together and teaching each other how to pronounce each other's names. There was a foul-up in the music for Nancy Thies' floor exercises—twice she appeared at center mat to perform only to have the taped music turn garbled and shrill. At last, after an emergency interpretation, the official traveling pianist for the Red Chinese, a small dignified fellow named Chou Chia-sheng, took his place at the keyboard and, as Nancy performed her complex routines, he watched carefully and composed an extemporaneous arrangement of Western classical music that matched her balletic moves perfectly. It was a magnificent international duet. Nancy received a 9.2 score (out of a possible 10) and rushed to plant a pretty kiss upon the beaming cheek of Mr. Chou while the entire Garden audience rose to its feet in exultant applause.

To top off the night's gentle scenes of good will, the fine American performer, Janette Boyd Anderson, 20, of Seattle, had just about completed a stirring and winning floor routine when she crumpled with a sprained ankle. As she crouched in pain, surrounded by a full complement of concerned Chinese, it was announced that she had won the competition as best all-round performer among the women. And so she stood to receive her award, supported on one side by her teammate Debbie Fike, the runner-up, and on the other by Chiang Shao-yi, who finished third. The symbolism could scarcely have been more theatrical had some kind of Cecil B. Ding-mao created it.

The tour continued last week to Philadelphia, Tucson, Los Angeles and Seattle and, eventually, Canada, by which time the Chinese should have had full exposure to the inscrutable West. While in New York they took a bus to a Mets-Pirates game at Shea Stadium and serenaded their American hosts with a harmonic, choirlike rendition of several songs of the Chinese revolution and dedication to the national purpose—as well as a touching rendition of Home on the Range. At the game only the delegation leader, Kung Ke-fei of the All-China Sports Federation, who had played shortstop in his youth, and the men's coach. Sung Tze-yu, seemed to fully understand the nuances of what was happening on the field. When he saw that a man was out, Mr. Sung would jerk up his thumb; when a man was safe, he would spread his hands. The Chinese did the full sight-seeing circuit—a boat tour around Manhattan, the circus and the like. To keep in condition they worked out by doing flips, handstands and somersaults in the carpeted corridors of the Biltmore Hotel. In Philadelphia they toured the Campbell Soup factory (but did not sing "Mmmmmm good" as reported in local papers there), then visited the Liberty Bell, Independence Square and heard the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra play a very heavy program of Wagner.

So it would go for another two weeks for the gymnasts and, one hopes, so it will be for years to come for ever-growing numbers of visiting Chinese (about 175 have arrived since the table-tennis team's trip last year). One question rises out of their presence here: How soon before the People's Republic will enter real international competition—specifically the Olympic Games? Chinese delegates to the General Assembly of I international Federations meeting in Oklahoma City last week had an immediate answer. Not very soon. They flatly refused to seek affiliation with any organization, including the International Olympic Committee. The problem remains Taiwan. "We do not wish to be impolite," said one, but as long as "the Chiang Kai-shek clique" is involved "we are not in a position to have relationships."

Too bad. Despite the sweetness and light cast upon the land by a friendly troupe of traveling gymnasts, one is reminded that the world is not really perfect after all—at least not yet.