University Olympics exhibit shows China’s path to games

Olympic Games continue during swirl of controversy.

In 1908, an American YMCA director in China asked the question, “When will Ö an Olympic contest be held in China?” A century later, amid controversy, China answered him.

In concurrence with the Olympic Games, Elmer L. Andersen Library is hosting an exhibit chronicling China’s path to the Olympics and the YMCA’s role in bringing organized sports to the nation.

The exhibit, called “Reaching for the Gold,” is on display amid protests, riots and pollution surrounding Beijing’s controversial hosting of the games . The controversy gained traction last spring with Chinese crackdown on Tibetan monks.

“[The Olympics are] a great opportunity for the world to focus on Tibet and for others to see what is happening and what the problems are in Tibet,” Ngawang Dolker, president of Students for a Free Tibet, said.

Dolker was among more than 500 others who protested China’s actions against Tibet at the Chinese consulate in Chicago the day of the opening ceremonies.

“There were a lot of people in Chicago who saw us, tourists especially, so Ö we got our message across,” she said.

The China portrayed in the exhibit, which starts in 1895, is a stark contrast to the China of today.

“When Western powers first went [into China], it was something to be exploited,” Ryan Bean, a University reference archivist who helped pull material together for the exhibit, said. “You have to deal with China on China’s terms now. You can’t go in there with a big gun and say, ‘Open your port.’ That doesn’t work anymore, they can shoot back now,” he said.

The YMCA went into China in the mid-1800s to a nation at the brink of a culture change. The YMCA’s mission was to bring Christianity to China, which did so by establishing schools, classes and athletics all tied to Christianity.

“They didn’t care if they were coming to hear about Jesus, they just wanted to hear English be spoken,” Bean said.

The YMCA brought widespread organized sports to China, including YMCA-invented basketball and volleyball, among several others. By 1910, the YMCA had helped organize the first national games in Nanking, China. Five years later, the YMCA organized China’s first international competition held in Shanghai.

The YMCA not only brought several sports to China, but had an influence on an already changing culture.

The Chinese were learning English and Christianity from the YMCA and placing such an importance on achievement in sports that some young men began cutting their queues, a traditional braid worn by most men. The queues got in the way of some sports, especially the high jump, where in one incident a jumper’s queue knocked the poll out of its holdings.

Romeyn Taylor, who taught history at the University for 34 years, said the Western influence on China over 100 years ago has affected its condition today.

Taylor said the military, political, economic and cultural penetration by Western powers in the 19th Century put China in a defensive position.

“It seems obvious that [the Chinese government’s] nationalistic thirst for respect in the world has driven patriotic Chinese to strive to ‘beat the powers at their own games,’ ” he said. “And what better stage is there on which to make this point than the Olympic Games?”

Fifteen years after Congress passed a resolution opposing the People’s Republic of China’s request to host the 2000 games, the country’s position as this year’s host is as controversial as ever.

China has faced international scrutiny following a violent backlash against Tibetans this spring. The running of the torch was frequently interrupted by protestors. The first day of the games saw a Minnesotan’s murder in Beijing and Tibetan protests in Tiananmen Square.

With over 92 million viewers of Saturday night’s games, NBC said the games in Beijing were on track to be the most-watched Olympics of all time.