Wu Chuanyu: The first Olympic athlete of New China


The name Wu Chuanyu (吳傳玉) may not ring a bell for even sports enthusiasts. As an Indonesian-Chinese returnee, he was in fact the first Olympic athlete of PRC.

Wu represented New China at the Olympics in 1952, some 32 years before Xu Haifeng (許海峰) won China's first Olympic gold medal.

PRC attends the Olympics for the first time in 1952

In July 1952, the Chinese delegation made its appearance at the 15th Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. This was the first time the five-star red flag was hoisted at an Olympic venue. (Web Image)

Every Olympic year, the media brings up Liu Changchun because he was the first Chinese to participate in the Olympics in 1932. But that was during the Republican period (1912-1949).

In 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded. Many people would assume that New China's first-time participation in the Olympics was the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 when shooting athlete Xu Haifeng won China's first Olympic gold medal.

However, this is not accurate. Actually, the New China had already sent a team to attend the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, soon after the country's establishment.

It was just that due to some political problems, the New China temporarily left the Olympic family for a while, and it was not until 1979 that its membership in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was restored.

Thus, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was only New China's first participation after resuming its IOC membership.

Wu came from an overseas Chinese family

Wu Chuanyu was born in Salatiga, an important city in Central Java of Indonesia. The smaller picture is of Wu. (Web Image)

Why has the history of New China's participation in the 1952 Olympics been forgotten by most people?

It may be due to that "it was a long time ago", or probably it was because very few Chinese athletes were sent and there were no breakthrough results.

In fact, though New China's delegation that year were consisted of 40 people which included a basketball and a football team, the only one able to participate in the actual games was swimmer Wu Chuanyu.

The story of Wu starts in Indonesia. In 1928, he was born in an overseas Chinese family in Salatiga of Indonesia, with his ancestral home in Zhangzhou, Fujian.

The family had lost much of their Chinese language proficiency, but his father never forgot his roots, always educating his children that "we have Chinese blood".

There was a small swimming pool near Wu Chuanyu's home in Indonesia, and he loved swimming from a young age.

Later, Wu was assigned by his father to work as a shop assistant in a shopping mall, but he did not give up swimming. He trained in his spare time and achieved outstanding results.

Wu beat Dutch sport star and shocked the world

Wu Chuanyu was highly talented in swimming; he was a "Flying Fish" of China. (Web Image)

During a competition in 1944, Wu Chuanyu defeated a Dutch swimmer who was known as the "King of the Sea", which shocked the sports community in Indonesia.

At that time, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, and Wu's outstanding performance wasn't given much attention.

Nevertheless, Wu Chuanyu never forgot that he was Chinese, and his greatest aspiration was to compete on behalf of China.

With the help of the overseas Chinese community, he returned to China in 1948 to participate in the National Games held in Shanghai, where he broke the national record.

Around two months later, he represented China in the London Olympics. Of course, the founding of PRC had not yet occurred at this time.

When he returned to China for the competition, Wu Chuanyu saw the corruption in the Chinese politics and the people's suffering, which left a deep impression on him.

It made him wonder, "Is this really what my homeland is like?" After the London Olympics, he went straight back to Indonesia.

Wu overcame language barriers to serve his country

Wu had excellent competition results and was once the cover figure of a sports magazine. (Web Image)

A year later, on October 1, 1949, New China was founded, and everything changed. Wu Chuanyu, as an ardent patriot, heard the news and rekindled his hope.

In 1951, Wu represented Indonesia in the 3rd World Youth Festival in East Germany and won second place in the men's 100 metre backstroke.

When the athletes from PRC offered him their congratulations, Wu Chuanyu was very moved. Tears streamed down his face as he shouted, "I am also Chinese! I am also a person of Chinese descent!"

He expressed his desire to return to serve his homeland to the Chinese delegation's leader.

After the competition ended, Wu Chuanyu directly returned with the Chinese delegation to join New China's sports community.

With support from all sides, Wu overcame the language barriers and made constant improvements, and in 1952, he became a member of the Olympic delegation representing the newly established PRC, participating in the Helsinki Olympics.

Wu won the first gold medal in international competitions for New China

Wu won the 100-metre backstroke at the 4th World Festival of Youth and Students, which was the first gold medal for PRC in a major international competition. The photo shows the award ceremony of that competition. (Web Image)

As mentioned earlier, at the Helsinki Olympics, the New China team only had Wu Chuanyu competing, but why did that happened?

Due to external factors, the formal invitation was only received by China the day before the Olympics opening ceremony.

As a result, when the Chinese delegation arrived in Helsinki, the Games had been underway for 10 days, and only Wu Chuanyu managed to compete in the 100-metre backstroke event.

Despite being exhausted from travel, Wu was eliminated in the preliminaries, but that race has now entered the pages of history, where Wu is remembered as New China's first Olympic athlete.

Wu holds another "first" for New China. In 1953, Wu participated in the 4th World Youth Festival held in Romania, representing New China this time.

In the 100-metre backstroke, he won with a time of 1 minute and 8.4 seconds, securing the first gold medal for New China in a major international competition.

Wu Chuanyu died in a plane crash at 26

In 2017, Wu was honoured as an Honour Pioneer Swimmer by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The picture shows the commemorative medal. (Web Image)

There's also a small story: the organisers did not expect New China to win a gold medal, so the band hadn't practiced playing the Chinese national anthem at all.

Therefore, during the awards ceremony, China's was played from a record, while the national anthems of other countries were played by live band.

What happened to Wu Chuanyu afterwards? Unfortunately, in October 1954, on his way to Hungary for further studies, his plane crashed in Siberia, and he died at the young age of 26.

Had he not encountered the misfortune, Wu might have achieved more and brought more glory to New China.

The following year, Premier Zhou Enlai went to Indonesia to attend the Bandung Conference.

Upon disembarking from the plane, he said, "I want to visit the parents of Wu Chuanyu to thank them for raising such a great son for our motherland!"

Read more: The king of ping pong who grew up in Shau Kei Wan! Rong Guotuan won China's first world championship

Read more: Chen Jingkai from Dongguan: The first Chinese athlete to break a world record

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