Why Was the First Chinese Delegation to the Olympics Just a Single Athlete?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about the Olympics and Olympians and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Olympic urban legends featured so far.

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: Through strange political circumstances, the very first Chinese delegation to the Summer Olympics was a single athlete.

In 1932, China entered its first delegation to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, USA.

Aside from a few officials, the delegation consisted entirely of ONE person, sprinter Liu Changchun!

How did a country of 400 million people come to send only ONE athlete to the Olympics?

The answer lies within an event from the preceding year. The “Mukden Incident” is the term most commonly used to refer to the events of September 18, 1931, when a section of a Japanese railroad within Manchuria was dynamited. Whether they were the ones who specifically planted the dynamite or not, Japan used this as a pretext for an attack on the area, leading to them taking over Manchuria and parts of Mongolia and labeling this “new” country Manchukuo, a supposedly new country, but really a puppet nation under the control of Japan.

Now the Kuomintang (the ruling party) of the Republic of China did not wish to go to war with Japan at this point in time, so they allowed Manchukuo to exist, although they certainly did not acknowledge the rights of the land to be considered its own nation. Neither did the League of Nations, although a few countries here and there did, most notably Japan’s future Axis ally, Germany.

In any event, in 1932, Japan wanted to further cement Manchukuo’s place in the world, so they had the notion of sending an Olympic delegation from Manchukuo. Their choices were sprinter Liu Changchun and long distance runner Yu Hsi-Wei. Changchun was the more notable of the two athletes, so he basically spoke for them both when he declared that he would not represent Manchukuo at the Olympics. He WOULD go to the Olympics, but it would be as a member of the Republic of China!

The only problem was, with all the political turmoil, the Kuomintang did not feel as though they could specifically finance the journey of these two athletes, so they had to find funds on their own to pay their way to Los Angeles. This was a major problem, as the distance was great and there was not much time to put together the funds.

Ultimately, General Zhang Xueliang (the warlord of Manchuria, who had to pull his troops back when Japan took control of the country) gave Changchun a gift of 8,000 silver dollars.

So Changchun made it to Los Angeles as the sole member of the Republic of China’s Olympic team.

He raced in the 100 meter and the 200 meter races, failing to make it past the preliminaries in either one.

He returned to the Olympics in 1936, though, as a member of a much larger delegation, nearly 80 athletes!

Changchun would go on to life a long life and be an important figure in Chinese athletics, although he passed away in 1983, one year before China won its first Gold Medal (they won a bunch at the 1984 Summer Olympics).

The legend is…

STATUS: True

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