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Cold War or Cold Water?

Swimming skills might have changed the course of world history

Elaine K. Howley | May 13, 2014

It’s not often that swimming and world politics intersect, but there have been a few fascinating moments in history when an ability to swim (or perhaps an inability, in this case) influenced a nation’s or nations’ course. A seemingly simple 1958 meeting between Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Chairman of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, provided just one such moment of swimming intrigue. And it’s a moment that may have altered the course of world history.

First, some background against which to set the gravity of this July meeting. The Cold War, which stretched from 1945 until 1991, was an antagonistic era that arose from the completion of World War II. Largely an ideological conflict that pitted east versus west and communism versus capitalism, the Cold War gave rise to many a spy novel, air raid drill, and distrust of communist sympathizers in the West. A period steeped in cloak-and-dagger chess-like moves and strategies, the Cold War left many Americans with an intense fear of the USSR, China, socialism, and nuclear weapons, among other foreign ideals, personages, and armaments.

Although both the Soviet Union and the PRC were communist countries and seemingly aligned in their animosity towards the capitalist West, as the Cold War dragged on, their dogmas began to evolve. This sometimes happens as new leaders take over for the old guard, and such was the case when Khrushchev assumed power after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953. Within a few years, Khrushchev and Mao were not exactly seeing eye-to-eye, which led to the Sino-Soviet Split. Rankling from 1960 through 1989, the Sino-Soviet Split was a particularly complicated aspect of the Cold War, marked by irreconcilable differences, deep mistrust, and several conflicts along the two nations’ more than 2,000 miles of shared border.

But the Split didn’t happen out of thin air, and the years leading up to it offered several hostile moments between Mao and Khruschev. One of these incidents was that soggy, 1958 meeting between the two portly men at one of Mao’s residences outside Beijing.

Khrushchev turned up for the meeting—one in a series the two nations had scheduled in an attempt to de-escalate tensions—as directed and was met at the door by a bathrobe- and slipper-wearing Mao. Mao presented his Soviet counterpart with a pair of large, green swimming trunks and instructions to get changed. They would talk turkey in the pool.

But this posed a real predicament for Khrushchev, who couldn’t swim. By contrast, Mao was a decent swimmer who had swum several long-distances—reportedly up to 10 miles downstream—in the polluted Yangtze River. As the day wore on, it became abundantly clear that Mao had known about his counterpart’s inability to swim and was exploiting this weakness to assert his own superiority.

As Mao swam laps, using an inefficient sidestroke, Khrushchev stood awkwardly in the shallow end. Meanwhile, translators ran up and back along the pool deck, trying to keep up with what Mao was saying so they could relay his comments to Khrushchev. After a while, Mao insisted that Khrushchev swim along side him and venture into deeper water. According to a 2012 article on Smithsonianmag.com:

“A flotation device was suddenly produced—Lorenz Lüthi [a history professor at McGill University] describes it as a ‘life belt,’ while [former U.S. Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger prefers ‘water wings.’ Either way, the result was scarcely dignified. Mao, says Lüthi, covered his head with ‘a handkerchief with knots at all the corners’ and swept up and down the pool while Khrushchev struggled to stay afloat. After considerable exertion, the Soviet leader was able to get moving, ‘paddling like a dog’ in a desperate attempt to keep up. ‘It was an unforgettable picture,’ said his aide Oleg Troyanovskii, ‘the appearance of two well-fed leaders in swimming trunks, discussing questions of great policy under splashes of water.’”

This treatment did not sit well with Khrushchev, who later characterized the interaction in a speech thusly: “He’s a prizewinning swimmer, and I’m a miner. Between us, I basically flop around when I swim; I’m not very good at it. But he swims around, showing off, all the while expounding his political views…. It was Mao’s way of putting himself in an advantageous position.”

The relationship between the two nations would never be the same; Smithsonian.com notes the Sino-Soviet Split provided an opportunity for Kissinger’s “ping-pong diplomacy” tactic (another incidence of sports influencing world politics) to pressure the Soviets into reducing aid to the North Vietnamese as America sought disengagement from the war there. Alongside this, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks also began, tipping off a long series of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Having recently concluded our April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign, I can’t help but wonder: How might history have been different if Khrushchev had only learned to swim?

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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