David Miller recalls China’s expansive sports leader He Zhenliang, former IOC vice-president who has died at eighty five after a long illness, was a remarkable figure within Olympic circles: an intellectual who had threaded his way unimpaired through the complex years of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to lead Chinese sport towards 21st Century eminence.
Against the background of guarded, reclusive attitudes throughout three decades following the Mao-led ideological earthquake, He, a multi-linguist engineer, had the demeanor, culturally and temperamentally, to help fashion a credible
bridgehead in the 80s and 90s between the world’s most popular yet still semi-secret nation and then by now galloping fully professional regime of Olympic sport.
Benign in manner, He, elected to the IOC in 1981 and embraced by then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch as an oriental conduit and trusted aide, rapidly became a discrete but global voice for China’s irresistible interests. With this came
the authority of an impeccable background.
Moving at age nine with his family into the Shanghai French Concession, and attending a Catholic school, He studied electric mechanics at Aurora University,Shanghai. Graduating in 1950, he joined the foreign liaison department of the central committee of the Communist Youth League. Aware of the social relevance of sport, He attended the Helsinki Olympic Games of 1952 as part of the Chinese delegation–China’s presence politically confused both at home and within the IOC–and the seed
was sewn for what would by degrees become the focal part of his life.
From here He moved to the National Sports Commission, becoming also in 1964 secretary general of the national table tennis federation, likewise subsequently the All-China Sports Federation — all the while having to tread water within Mao’s unaligned world strategy under the political ‘reconstruction’ of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.
His intellectual dexterity saw He promoted in 1979 to deputy general secretary of the NOC, then leader 1982-86 and president 89-94. Thus he was at forefront of Beijing’s bid in 1993 to host the Centennial Games of 2,000 which founded on a
A member of the bid team, packed with political place-men, declared on arrival in Monaco for the election that if Beijing was not elected — Sydney the main rival — “China will never bid again”. Within the hour the message had circled the globe and despite frantic attempts by He to seal the damage, Beijing was effectively dead in the water.
Sydney, escaping miraculously un-penalized from an underhand last minute financial ‘gift’ to a couple of IOC members, won by a couple of votes: the tea leaves having clearly revealed that Samaranch and other front-line members recognized that
China’s financial might had to be recognized.
And so it was at the vote two Games later, in 2001 for 2008. Diplomacy by He and modesty within Beijing’s political hierarchy had restored relations and Beijing was a shoe-in.
Never one to flaunt himself, He’s standing was nonetheless peerless, serving eighteen years on the EB, chairing the Cultural Commission, most significantly helping to negotiate acceptance of the invaluable TOP sponsorship schedule which
transformed Olympic finances. Another platform was advocacy of Sport-for-All in conjunction with the Solidarity Fund. The IOC has seldom enjoyed the advice of a wiser head than He Zhenliang.
This article was republished with permission from the original editor and publisher, Karl Heinz-Huba.