The Jury is Out: Mao Zedong Swam Faster Than Today’s Olympic Champions
The “Birthday Paper” is an approach to the research of Chinese media history pioneered at the University of Hong Kong by Qian Gang, director of the China Media Project. Students in Qian’s course, Understanding China Through the Media, turn to the archives of core official media — including the People’s Daily and the Liberation Army Daily — to explore news events that unfolded around the birthday of a parent.
Given this week’s start, on May 16, of the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, I would like to share a partial translation of a recent “birthday paper” by Luo Xiaoyue (罗晓月), a master’s student at Peking University’s Shenzhen Graduate School.
Luo’s piece, which explores the outlandish claims made in July 1966 over Mao Zedong’s swimming prowess, is a wonderful look at the absurdity and senselessness of the stories often peddled by China’s propaganda mouthpieces during the Cultural Revolution and beyond.
By Luo Xiaoyue (罗晓月)
PREFACE by Qian Gang
In 1978 I was serving as a cultural officer in the Shanghai garrison. As I was on duty on July 16, I received a phone call from a senior officer. “Comrade Qian Gang, what day is it today?” he asked. All of sudden I was tongue-tied. The senior officer said: “Please help me out by preparing a swimming event. Had you forgotten? Today is the anniversary of Chairman Mao swimming the Yangtze!” Notice that this phone call came after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but the legend of “7.16” still persisted.
My father was born on July 16, 1966. And on the day after dad was born, Chairman Mao swam the Yangtze River. News of this appeared in the July 25, 1966, edition of the People’s Daily and the Liberation Army Daily, appearing prominently on both front pages.
What I found particularly curious, however, was that according to these news reports “Chairman Mao swam 15 kilometres in 1 hour and 5 minutes.” So we can calculate that Mao Zedong, who was then already in his seventies, swam at a speed of 3.842 metres per second.
On August 4, 2012, during the London Olympics, China’s Sun Yang (孙杨) won gold in the 1500 metre freestyle with a time of 14 minutes 31.02 seconds, setting a new world record. This means Sun clocked in at 1.722 metres per second.
If Sun Yang’s Olympic champion speed could be sustained over 15 kilometres, his swim [across the Yangtze] would take over 2 hours. So Mao Zedong’s reported speed for his July 17, 1966, swim was twice as fast as Sun Yang. I found this to be an astonishing comparison, that the 73 year-old Mao Zedong could swim so much faster than a young Olympic champion.
What would happen if we could superimpose these two moments and time and allow these two swimmers compete?
Naturally, a river and a swimming pool are different environments, and in rivers you have to think as well about currents. According to relevant reports at the time and accounts from eyewitnesses, Mao Zedong chose to enter the water in the place where the current was fastest — and we can add to this the fact that in June and July the current in the Yangtze is rather fast.
Continuing our calculations we find that currents in the Yangtze River range in speed from 1 to 2 metres per second. So on the basis of that faster of these, 2 metres per second, we can calculate the speeds of each of our swimmers.
Mao Zedong: 15 km/3,600 seconds-2mps = 1.842 mps
Sun Yang: 1,500 metres/14 minutes 31.02 seconds =1.722 mps
The result we get is still quite a shocker. Even when we allow for the speed of river currents, Mao Zedong is faster than Sun Yang.
Surely, the People’s Daily and Liberation Army Daily are guilty of serious exaggeration, right? In fact, newspapers in Taiwan at the time uncovered this “bug.”
On July 26, 1966, Taiwan’s United Daily reported on Mao Zedong’s swim in the Yangtze and used calculations provided by sports expert Chen Fuyu (陈福榆) based on world swimming records. The newspaper calculated that with the river current accounting for about 70 percent of the total speed, the course on the Yangtze would take 72 minutes if world record speed was maintained. But Mao Zedong’s time was 65 minutes. “Well, it would seem that his speed surpassed that of world champions,” the newspaper wrote. “The absurdity of this lie,” the article added, “draws laughter from outside China.”
Still, Mao Zedong was an accomplished swimmer. He swam the Yangtze River 17 times between 1956 and 1966, each time in Wuhan, Hubei province.