Athletics: 50 years ago, world's fastest woman was an Asian

Taiwanese runner Chi Cheng, who once held six world records in athletics, competing in the hurdles in her younger days.
Taiwanese runner Chi Cheng, who once held six world records in athletics, competing in the hurdles in her younger days.PHOTO: COURTESY CHI CHENG

SINGAPORE - Summers pass and legends get left on the forgotten shelves of time. Fifty Junes ago at the Rose Festival in Portland, Oregon, an Asian woman took brilliant flight in front of the world's most celebrated astronaut. On a Saturday in 1970, Chi Cheng, the sprinter who first ran barefoot among the rice fields of Taiwan, exploded off the blocks in the 100 yards.

Her time was 10 seconds. It was a world record.

An hour or so later she ran the 220 yards in 22.7sec and it was another world record on a day that was unforgettable also because of her meeting with the chief guest. "I met Neil Armstrong," Chi, now 76, recounted last week. "He was very polite, such a gentleman." The first man on the moon had seen her become the fastest woman on the planet.

Fifty summers have passed and we forget that Asians could once outsprint the world; we forget the daughter of a Taiwanese postman who moved quicker than air mail; we forget a schoolgirl who ran hard to win the first prize of a pencil case and writing sheets because "the more prizes I won the less my father has to pay for all those things".

We forget old heroes and their lightning summers. In June-July 1970, Chi set six world records from the 100m to the 200m to the 100m hurdles, in Portland, Los Angeles, Munich and Vienna. She was fast everywhere and in everything and in July 1970, Time's story on her had a neat headline: "The Taiwan Flash".

"Those were really great days," Chi remembers. "Heide Rosendahl the long jumper approached me (in Munich) and said you broke the world record and I jumped up and down in happiness and stepped on her foot with my spikes."

Chi is a tale forgotten outside her shores which we need to resuscitate. This year we celebrate 50 years of Brazil's 1970 football team and yet we sometimes forget the shine of athletes from our own continent who reshaped the athletic universe.

In the 89-year history of the AP Athlete of the Year Award only two are Asians and both women: Golfer Pak Se-ri in 1998 and Chi in 1970. She won an Olympic hurdling bronze in 1968, but the world records comprise an astonishing history, especially when only one women's track world record is currently held by an Asian (Wang Junxia, 3,000m).

In an hour-long video chat, Chi emerged as an energetic, charming storyteller wrapped in a smile and humility. The fastest woman, my god, how did it feel? "It didn't affect my life much," she said. "It was nice to be honoured as the fastest woman in the world. But I was still very much Chi Cheng."

Still, what a distance she has come from the teenager who asked her father for spikes and wept when he first said he couldn't afford it. Yet after dinner that day her father summoned her and gave her the money. He had borrowed it from a friend.

Champions grow from such love but they also need luck. A US coach, Vince Reel, came to Taiwan in 1962 and when he returned, she says, he wrote several letters to officials praising her world-class potential.

And so she went to America in 1963, following in gifted footsteps, for also in California was C.K. Yang, her inspiration and compatriot, who'd won Olympic decathlon silver in 1960, set the world record in April 1963 and was on the cover that year of Sports Illustrated under the headline: World's Best Athlete.

There's a story in it about Yang killing a cobra when he was 11, but Chi just wanted to move like one. She competed constantly, had her technique filmed on an 8mm camera by Reel - who she married - and for all her talent was not resented.

If prejudice lurked, she did not feel it. "No. Not at all. As a yellow skin Asian, I attract all the attention. They were quite curious that this yellow-skinned Asian girl was able to run so fast." She cooked meatballs for her peers and then won an Olympic medal by altering her diet.

"I was told," she said, "that Western people and Europeans, the reason they are able to run faster and jump higher and further is because they ate a lot of beef. As an Asian, I loved pork and porridge. But this idea stayed in my mind when I went to the Olympics in Mexico City. It was the first time I had three meals a day which were all beef. This is how much I wanted to get a medal."

Chi, at 1.72m, says she had the fastest speed in the 80m hurdles field, but her height was a disadvantage. "I was the tallest among the medallists and penalised for my height. Every hurdle I had to chop my steps. After Mexico they changed to the 100m (for women's hurdles) and between the hurdles there was more distance."

Still, perhaps the result was foretold, written not in her stars but on her vest. "My number was 223 and I truly believed in numbers. I was second in my heat, second in the semi and third in the final, so 2-2-3."

Only one Asian woman before her - Kinue Hitomi, 800m silver medallist in 1928 - had won an Olympic medal on the track and its value was significant to Chi. The medal released her, it made her even faster.

"I was sent to the States in 1963 and I knew my responsibility was in following C.K. Yang's footsteps to get a medal in the Olympics. When I won bronze, I had finished my responsibility. For me it was such a relief. After that bronze I started to enjoy competition. There is such a difference in the psychological state of mind. And all of sudden I broke world records."

It started in 1969 with the 200m hurdles and then very quickly she left the world in her wake.

As we talk and she invites me to come to Taiwan, Chi does not ever preen but gaily points to a story of failure from her first Olympics in 1960. "I was only 16," she remembers, "and I came last in my heat in the 80m hurdles. This story I loved to tell the kids. Thing is I didn't quit and if I wasn't last in my heat I wouldn't have won bronze in 1968."

Chi's story matters, especially for Asian sprinters, because her name in the record books is a proof of possibility. Fifty years later she is worth copying just as she was 50 years before. Asked about the finest compliment she got, the story she tells is not about what anyone said but what some young girls did.

In 1970, she went to northern California for a meet and came down one morning for breakfast in her hotel. "There was a group of young American athletes also having breakfast and they paid attention to what I ate. They jotted it down. It was the greatest compliment because they cared about what I ate."

Getting a taste, one might say, about what it meant to be extraordinary.

WORLD RECORDS BY CHI CHENG

1) 200m hurdles

26.2 secs (May 25, 1969)

Walnut, California

2) 100 yards

10.0 0s (June 13, 1970)

Portland, Oregon

3) 220 yards

22.7s (June 13,1970)

Portland, Oregon

4) 220 yards

22.6s (July 3, 1970)

Los Angeles, California

5) 100m hurdles

12.8s (July 12, 1970)

Munich, Germany

6) 200m

22.4s (July 12, 1970)

Munich, Germany

7) 100m

11.0s (July 18, 1970)

Vienna, Austria