And Finally

Going swimmingly

Symbolic swims and drinks at the Water Cube

Going swimmingly

A glowing reputation: Beijing's Water Cube

Mao Zedong loved to swim. In fact, in July 1966 the 73 year-old took a vigorous and well-publicised plunge into the Yangtze River to signal that he was in robust health – and that he was launching a counterattack against his critics in the party leadership following the disastrous Great Leap Forward.

Out in the river, the Great Helmsman chided the more fearful among his companions: “Maybe you’re afraid of sinking. Don’t think about it. If you don’t think about it, you won’t sink. If you do, you will.”

Swimming as ‘political theatre’ made a comeback this month, although this time across the Taiwan straits. Fifty swimmers from China and Taiwan will meet on the Taiwan-held islet of Kinmen and swim the 8.5 kilometres together to China’s coastal city of Xiamen.

The “Quemoy-Xiamen Crossing” is “an event for peace,” said organiser Lee Juhfeng, a Quemoy county magistrate. What Quemoy residents wanted after six decades of hostility across the Taiwan Strait, Lee said, was peace, not war.

Since Ma Ying-jeou took office in Taiwan, Beijing and Taipei have signed nine agreements on economic co-operation, including deals on direct flights and other trade arrangements, signalling closer ties between the formerly feud-prone rivals.

News of the ‘diplomatic dip’ coincided with the opening of the National Aquatic Centre to the public. Ten months after the Beijing Olympics, the swimming facility, dubbed the Water Cube, welcomed its first batch of public swimmers last Saturday afternoon. Many have complained that the Rmb50 ($7) entry ticket is too high but, neverthless, hundreds of swimming fans lined up to experience their own Olympic moments in the water.

The general response to the new swimming facility has been positive so far – and that includes the taste test.

Jiang Yinghui, a middle-aged woman from Beijing, told state media: “The water is much warmer than other public indoor pools and it tasted like purified water.”

But it is not just a case of turning up with some goggles and a rubber ring. For safety reasons, every swimmer must get a health check and a deep-water certificate before being allowed into the pool.

A recent survey by travel agents showed that the Water Cube has replaced the Forbidden City as the second top attraction, behind the Bird’s Nest, for Chinese tourists visiting Beijing. Unlike the ancient Forbidden City, the Water Cube managers face the task of recouping its initial investment, in addition to high maintenance costs (see WiC4).

Zhao Zhixiong, manager of the National Aquatic Centre, notes: “It’s just the beginning. It’s hard to say whether our revenue can balance with the cost of operation.”

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