China's unsung hero

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2008, 12:00am

Behind the spectacle and fanfare that will mark the opening of the Beijing Games in 51 days, a leading state environmentalist will witness the realisation of his dead father's long-time dream of an Olympics being held in China.

The environmentalist is Liu Hongliang , an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and his late father is Liu Changchun , China's first Olympian and the country's only athlete to compete in the 10th Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1932.

'Participating in the Olympics was my father's proudest [moment],' Mr Liu said. But having the Games on the mainland was his dream, the 76-year-old son added.

The Liu Changchun story is one of a young athlete's single-mindedness to overcome all odds to reach the Olympics, and has been turned into a mainland-produced film The One, which debuted this year in Beijing. The only difference was that Liu's life story did not have the typical Hollywood ending.

Liu emerged as a celebrated sprinter during the war-torn years when China's northeast was ruled by the Japanese, who turned it into a puppet state called Manchukuo. The invaders wanted Liu, a native of Dalian in northeast Liaoning province , to represent Manchukuo in the 10th Olympic Games and announced the move through Japanese-controlled media. Liu refused, declaring his opposition in the Ta Ka Pao newspaper: 'I am a Chinese; I definitely won't represent Manchukuo ... I only represent China.'

His defiance caused tensions between him and the Japanese authorities that would lead to serious repercussions.

'At that time, the country [under the Nationalists] was in no condition to support the Olympics and the government did not support the Games. Its aim was to quash the Communists and deal with the severe flooding of the Yangtze,' Liu Hongliang recalled.

But Liu Changchun's patriotism won him financial support from General Zhang Xueliang , who sponsored his trip to the Olympics. Unfortunately, after more than 20 days at sea to get the US, an exhausted Liu was due to compete in preliminary heats three days after he arrived. He came in fifth and failed to qualify for the finals. Four years later, Liu again participated in the Olympics, this time in Berlin.

Bigger disappointments awaited Liu when he returned to the mainland. 'After participating in two Olympics ... 1932 and 1936, he was gradually forgotten. Because he had no special skills and the country did not emphasise sports at that time, he was jobless for a long time,' his son said.

Destitute, with a young family to support, Mr Liu said his father couldn't return to his native Dalian because of his earlier run-in with the Japanese. In 1936, he went to Shanghai and subsequently Nanjing , the Nationalist capital. When the Nationalist government moved to Changsha , Liu followed. A huge fire later destroyed all his Olympics memorabilia.

When the capital was moved to Chongqing , Liu decided to return to Beijing, where he found a managerial job at a hotel in the Summer Palace and sent for his wife and three children.

Life was hard but the family managed to scrape by. Liu subsequently quit his hotel job and went to teach at the Beijing Normal University. But the change was short-lived because late in 1944, or early 1945, he was arrested by the Japanese. After much difficulty, his wife managed to bail him out.

Liu Hongliang was eight years old the first time he met his father at a family reunion in Beijing. 'I felt he was very serious and didn't smile, and he had high expectations of us,' he said. 'Because we hadn't lived with him for a long time, we were scared of him. Later, I realised that even though he was stern with us, he cared a lot for us.'

Liu Changchun stopped competing after the Berlin Games as intensive training left him with an irreversible leg injury, but he continued to teach sports until his retirement.

In war-torn China, sport was of low priority. Since the middle of the 19th century, when invading foreigners colonialised some coastal areas, China has striven to shake off the label of dongya bingfu - sick man in East Asia. Sport was one way to prove the country's strength.

This context largely explains Chinese pride in hosting the Olympics. Mr Liu said that before Chiang Kai-shek left the mainland, he had asked his father to follow the Kuomintang to Taiwan to be the sports coach for the air force, an invitation that the senior Liu turned down.

Things took a turn for the better for his family after 1949 when the Communists came into power. Liu got a stable job and was able to first return to Shenyang , Liaoning's provincial capital, and then to Changchun in Jilin province . He finally transferred and settled back in Dalian, teaching at the Dalian University of Technology.

'He devoted himself whole-heartedly to nurturing the next generation of sporting talent,' his son said.

Despite their father's dedication, none of the children pursued a professional sports career, largely because prospects for professional sports were bleak and the family lacked the financial means.

'After I reunited with my father, he was jobless and the conditions did not exist for us [children] to take up sports. We were so poor ... not enough to eat, not enough warm clothes ... one pair of shoes was worn for an entire year,' a teary-eyed Mr Liu recalled.

Mr Liu embarked on an academic career in engineering, specialising in environmental sciences in Tsinghua University in 1952. Inspired by the 'magnificent pictures' of water generation and civil construction in the early years of Communist rule to build the New China, Mr Liu signed up for the environmental engineering programme.

'The specialisation involves construction of underground pipes. It wasn't called environmental science then, simply a specialisation in the supply and disposal of water,' he said.

'Later, during my internship, I saw for myself how the public lived without such facilities. Some living quarters were soaked in sewage; it was all very sad. From being lukewarm about the profession, I was drawn into it. Now environmental science has become a hot profession.'

Mr Liu said China's pollution worsened severely after the 1980s with the economic boom, and there was a constant struggle to balance economic development with environmental protection.

'Even though everyone - from top to bottom - verbally supports [sustainable development], in reality they only chase after gross domestic product. You propose a GDP target every year, but every year GDP exceeds the target. The state should rectify this and not blindly allow this rapid [growth]. Officials who raise GDP levels can be promoted ... From an impartial perspective, environment protection hasn't got an effective result.'

As life has its funny twists, the Beijing Olympics has melded Mr Liu's professional world with that of his late father's sports world. Improving the environment has become a huge test to the leadership since Beijing won the bid to host the Games.

'Beijing has taken water pollution very seriously. The rate of sewage treatment has risen from 20 per cent to more than 90 per cent. Rubbish used to be treated with simple methods and exacerbated pollution. Now, this has changed to landfills and incineration,' he said.

'What is more serious now is the number of cars in Beijing ... and their emissions are a severe form of pollution. The pollutants on the sun's rays cause refraction which lowers visibility. Beijing aims for close to 300 days of clear days a year; this is difficult.'

Mr Liu became one of the torch-bearers for the Athens leg of the Olympic torch relay in March, a moment he dedicated to the memory of his father.

Liu Changchun died in 1983, a year before marksman Xu Haifeng won China's first gold medal, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Mr Liu said the Beijing Games this summer would fulfil his father's dream and cement his sports legacy.