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Opinion I Asian heroes in the shadows

As the story of the legendary Taiwanese athlete Chi Cheng shows, great eastern stars often get overshadowed and forgotten

Chi Cheng (No.6) with (from left) British sprinters Dorothy Hyman, Anita Neil and Madeleine Cobb at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre for the AAA Championships, London, on 19 July 1969.
Chi Cheng (No.6) with (from left) British sprinters Dorothy Hyman, Anita Neil and Madeleine Cobb at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre for the AAA Championships, London, on 19 July 1969. (Getty Images)

Sometimes you meet an athlete who gives sport a shine. Takes you on a wild trip through history. Invites you to her country. Wears her greatness with a lightness. Is taken aback you even remember her. Leaves you thinking you know so little. Makes you feel grateful.

And to think I found Chi Cheng just by luck.

I can’t remember what I was searching for which took me to the list of winners of the AP Athlete of the Year award. Instituted in 1931, it’s primarily a celebration of US athletes, with no Africans represented and only two South Americans and two Asians: golfer Se Ri Pak in 1998 and Chi in 1970.

1970 is when Margaret Court won tennis’ Grand Slam and Ludmilla Tourischeva won the all-round title at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, so what outrageous act does Chi— who’s just a fading Taiwanese ghost in my rickety memory—produce to deserve it?

Well, this...

World records in the 100m, 200m, 100 yards, 220 yards and 100m hurdles in a blur of a brilliant summer.

She’s faster than the world on land in Portland, Los Angeles, Munich and Vienna. A porridge eater who spiked every lame stereotype we have created about Asian athletes. Daughter of a woman who once washed clothes to make a living. We are understandably dazzled by the present but the past holds brilliant secrets we sometimes forget to look for.

I read scattered stories about Chi, trace her records through the database World Athletics sends me (as if to confirm the unbelievable) and then there’s only one thing left.

Find her.

I message my Straits Times colleague in Taiwan, she smartly finds Chi’s secretary, mails are sent, reasons are given, surprise is expressed, a date is set. I think it’s an audio call and don’t shave and sit at my desk at home in a tatty yellow-black vest.

Chi calls on video, damn, and I apologize for my attire but she beams and says we are wearing the same colours and asks how she should pronounce my name. I am smitten already. She’s 76, a laughing grandmother who tells stories for an hour.

Taiwan is where she outruns the boys. California is where she goes to university in 1963, marries her coach, meets basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and slogs. Mexico in 1968 is where she eats beef thrice a day because she’s told that’s the diet which makes Westerners strong and wins an Olympic bronze in the 80m hurdles (then she giggles, “Even now I prefer pork"). Portland in 1970 is where on a single July day she meets astronaut Neil Armstrong and goes where no woman has before in the 100 yards (10 seconds) and 220 yards (22.7 seconds).

I write a feature on her for my newspaper and my research leads me toplaces and people. To Japan’s Kinue Hitomi, who won an 800m silver at the 1928 Olympics, even though she had never run that distance before, and it makes me wonder: Which other Asian stories had I missed, how skewed was our early reading and how strong is our worship of athletes who emerge from the West? So easily we recite the histories of American basketballers and detail the careers of English footballers and yet so casually we set aside athletes from our own continent.

Information on Asian athletes can be scarce, no translated biographies readily available, no insights on how the Vietnamese approach sport easily found. But maybe we are also lazy, inundated with information from a few familiar sources and not always as inquisitive as we should be. There’s an Asian world out there that some of us tend to miss, or know too little of, and just for fun I wandered through history for an afternoon. I reacquainted myself with that farm boy Li Ning—six gymnastics medals at the 1984 Olympics—and discovered via The New York Times that his American peers referred to him in 1984 as “The Li Ning Tower of Power".  The greatest female archer of the 20th century, according to World Archery, is an Asian, Kim Soo-Nyung, who won four Olympic golds (three of them in 1988 and 1992) and was called “The Viper". She packed up her bow for six years, had two kids, said what the hell, made a comeback and won another gold in 2000. Great sporting mummies isn’t a new thing.

I knew the Japanese had an impressive swimming history but no idea it ran this deep. At the 1932 Olympics—in the men’s section—they won five of six golds and 11 of 18 available medals, and at the 1936 Games they grabbed 10 of 18. In 100m freestyle in 1932, the Olympic record held by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) was broken by a 15-year-old Japanese boy, Yasuji Miyazaki, who had brought his school books with him.

But my favourite find was Khaosai Galaxy in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a Thai legend with a 49-1 record, who can’t be forgotten just for what his fist was nicknamed: “The left hand that drills intestines".

When Asian coaches tell stories to their athletes, seeking to inspire, they should look East as well for examples. For people of similar build in many cases; who don’t always come from professional sporting cultures which spit out champions; for whom sport has rarely been a leisure activity but a way out of hardship.

People like Chi. Who first ran to win pencils and pencil cases because “the more prizes I won the less my father has to pay for all those things".

I hope one day I get to Taiwan because I would like to shake her hand in thanks. For telling me her story of 50 summers ago and for making me reconsider every Top 10 list I have ever made. She said she would drive me around the island. I wonder if she does that slowly.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.


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