Chen Chengda, China's almost Olympian

BEIJING (Reuters) - For nearly three decades soccer international Chen Chengda was one of only a handful of Chinese who possessed a medal for participation in an Olympic Games.

Despite traveling to Helsinki for the 1952 Summer Olympics and four years of preparation for the 1956 Games, however, he never kicked a ball in competition.

In the turmoil of the latter half of the 20th century in China, many people’s lives turned dramatically on single, often unexceptional, events.

In Chen’s case, it was his selection for Helsinki -- his country’s last appearance at the Summer Olympics until 1984.

“I was a student studying architectural engineering at St John’s University in Shanghai,” the 78-year-old told Reuters.

“In December 1951, I represented East China in the first national football championships in Tianjin. The purpose was to select a team for the 1952 Olympic Games.”

After impressing against other regional teams, Chen was called up to a training camp in Beijing.

Less than three years after the Communist takeover of the mainland, there was confusion over who would represent China and both the People’s Republic and nationalists in Taiwan were invited.

“At the last minute the government decided to go,” said Chen. “Only two teams, the men’s soccer and basketball teams, and one swimmer joined the Olympics.”

“It took three days and three nights to get there. We raised the flag of the new China in the village, where we were put in with the Soviets in a separate ‘Socialist camp’.”

“We arrived too late to take part in the soccer competition and so played a couple of friendlies.

“We knew we would be late, the government just sent the team to raise the flag and join the closing ceremony, that was the victory.”

The Chinese stayed 10 days, even though only the swimmer took part.

“Helsinki was a nice city, the people were very friendly,” Chen recalled. “I watched a lot of the events, especially the football.”


Chen can still recall the results of the friendlies.

“We lost 2-0 to the Finland national team and drew the second game against a local team 1-1,” he said. “It was our first time together as a national team, the standard was low.”

There was a surprise waiting for Chen when he got back to Beijing.

“I wanted to go back to university,” Chen recalled. “But the government didn’t agree and said ‘you must work in football’ and my whole life became the football life.

“I was very disappointed, very sad. I should have graduated in 1952. I regret that, but that was China’s situation.”

Chen and his team mates were now full-time footballers and after a tour of China by a Hungary team who later in 1953 thrashed England at Wembley, they were dispatched to Europe.

“After their visit, our government top man decided to send a youth team to train in Hungary,” he said. “That top man was Deng Xiaoping.

“We stayed there two years and we learned a lot. We improved a lot.”

The team went home confident they could put up a good showing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics but the dispute over the recognition of Taiwan intervened.

“We were in a training camp in Guangzhou and at the last minute we pulled out,” said Chen. “We were very disappointed, by that time we were a very good team.”

Two years later, Chen was made player coach of the national team.

“We’d left FIFA so couldn’t play official international matches, so we just played friendlies,” he said. “In the closing ceremony of China’s First National Games we beat the Hungarian Olympic team, we gave them a great shock.

“In 1958 we twice drew 1-1 with the Soviet Union in Guangzhou. In 1964 I stopped as coach because in China there were big economic problems so the domestic league stopped.”


Two years later, Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution.

“During the so-called Cultural Revolution, sport just stopped and that was the start of the decline of football in China,” Chen said. “At the Chinese Football Association (CFA), we had nothing to do.”

Chen’s Helsinki medal is displayed at his Beijing apartment alongside awards from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that reflect a lifetime of work in soccer.

But he has only a dozen or so photographs of his playing days.

“Old memories,” he said, flicking through the slim album. “Only a few left, the others were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.”

Chen returned to work at the CFA in 1974, four years before China was reinstated by FIFA and five before his country’s return to the Olympic movement.

He rose to be vice-chairman and held positions at FIFA and the AFC, later acting as a consultant to China’s women when they finished runners-up at the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup.

The poor state of Chinese soccer still bothers Chen and while he is looking forward to watching the 2008 Olympics, he will not be leaving his couch.

“I’ll watch it on television, it’s too crowded for me now. The Beijing Olympics will be a great success, but our football team ...” he said with a shake of the head.

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen