Wu the elegant queen of diving's imitation game

Chinese star becomes first woman to win four consecutive Olympic golds in the same event

On one side of Olympic Park in Rio are a series of hills which in a way perfectly symbolise the spirit of these Games. Every one is trying to rise and not just literally like basketballers. One might say these Games represent the athletic ascent of humankind. Yet at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on Sunday night, the reverse happened. With a twist, of course. Two Chinese women divers fell to earth - and rather beautifully at that.

The sky on Sunday was grey, the crowd involved and the art of Wu Minxia and her partner Shi Tingmao incomparable. The rest of the field in the women's synchronised 3m springboard final were in a contest; the Chinese were merely offering an exhibition. Put it this way: Australia beat Canada to bronze by .87 of a point; China beat Italy to gold by 31.77 points.

The evening was a celebration of the Olympics, of diving and of the retiring Wu. You could barely hear her enter the water - knives into butter are too noisy - and yet she exited the Olympics to loud applause. In four Games she has won four synchronised diving golds. Add a fifth for the individual 3m springboard title and she has more gold than Greg Louganis. The greatest diver is still him, the winningest diver is now her.

The evening was a succession of duets, many delightful, even if the Chinese coach - from a distance - never seemed entirely thrilled. You'd see a dive which appeared flawless and then his gestures to his divers would suggest he didn't agree. Then again, perfection was never born of satisfaction.

The evening was also a reminder that these Games, for all their warts, are unparalleled in what they offer us. In one city, for just over two weeks, almost anything you desire in sport is available: Team or individual, on horse or bike, with sword or stick, requiring motion or stillness, with round ball or oval one, bloody or peaceful, wearing fancy helmet or almost naked, it's all there.

Diving is unique, for it is highly technical acrobatics in a stylish package which starts on earth, continues in the air and ends in water. On first glance it seems like a non-contact sport except that Wu and Shi's taped ankles are proof to the contrary. It is arguably the Games' most elegant activity, alongside gymnastics, though here two people compete in tandem which is double the pleasure. One might say that synchronised diving is the ultimate imitation game.

Wu Minxia (top) and Shi Tingmao during the women's synchronised 3m springboard event on Sunday. They led right through the five-round competition and won by a massive margin of 31.77 points.
Wu Minxia (top) and Shi Tingmao during the women's synchronised 3m springboard event on Sunday. They led right through the five-round competition and won by a massive margin of 31.77 points. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The best synchronised pairs, together rising and folding and spinning and straightening, make you think of shadows and reflections, mirrors and clones. Timothy Lee, who forms a gifted synchronised sibling team with his brother Mark, says, "It's all hours of work and no magic". Wu started when she was six, is now 30 and when at work did roughly 100 dives a day. You don't need a calculator to work out that's a fair amount of somersaults.

Lee suggests that as a test of synchronicity the 3m springboard is harder than the 10m platform. In the 3m you have to walk a flexible plank precisely together, you have to bounce together, you have to rise to the same height together. It can play hell with harmony.

INSPIRING HER RIVALS

She's a model diver. She's awesome. Her dives are pretty. I want to dive like her.

TAMMY TAKAGI, Brazilian diver, on why Wu is incomparable in the sport.

So can days, says Lee, when "your partner is in form and you're not". It's like a regular dancing partner who is suddenly out of step. "You're doing your best to match him," says Lee, "and he's trying to compensate. For instance he has to spin slower (in the air) because of you."

All this requires a diver not merely of skill but of adaptability and Wu has won two golds with the brilliant Guo Jingjing (2004, 2008), one with He Zi (2012)and now one with Shi. She has done what Carl Lewis did with four successive long jump golds and Al Oerter did similarly in the discus, which is to impossibly stretch her talent over time.

Darkness fell, questions came, Chinese journalists asked for wefies and she smiled with the relaxed air of a champion who has been doing this all her life. Which is almost half true. Some distance away, in the corner of the mixed zone, the Brazilian diver, Tammy Takagi, was chatting and she smiled when I asked about Wu. "She's a model diver. She's awesome. Her dives are pretty."

Then she paused. "I want to dive like her." Maybe some day. But on Sunday nobody in the world could.

Well, except Shi of course.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Wu the elegant queen of diving's imitation game'. Print Edition | Subscribe