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Two women look at items in a glass case.

The "Reaching for Gold" exhibit at the Elmer L. Andersen Library features items such as books, letters, and building plans that document how the YMCA brought Western sports to China during the early 20th century.

The genesis of an Olympic dream

University Libraries exhibit illustrates YMCA's role in the rise of modern sports in China

By Pauline Oo

August 12, 2008

In 1908, a YMCA leader in China posed the question: "When will [we] be able to invite an international gathering of athletes to an Olympic event in China?" Little did he know that answer would be: In exactly 100 years.

The origins and development of modern sports in China, which have ultimately led to Beijing playing host to the 2008 Summer Olympics, are chronicled in the new exhibit at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. "Reaching for Gold: The YMCA and the Olympic Movement in China from 1895-1920" runs through September 29 and displays a variety of items from the University of Minnesota's Kautz Family YMCA Archives, including an antique laced leather basketball and a booklet of volleyball rules in Chinese.

"When I first heard that the Olympics was going to be held in Beijing, I thought about it as an opportunity for us to show the rich collection we have and to share the [little-known] fact that the Y was so instrumental in bringing modern sports to China," says reference archivist Dagmar Getz. (Beijing was elected the host city in the summer of 2001. It will also host the Paralympic Games from September 6 to 17).

The Young Men's Christian Association, better known as the YMCA, was founded in London in 1844 to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and physical condition of young men by integrating sports with educational programs. The Y came to the United States a few years later, and in 1985, the American arm of the YMCA made the University of Minnesota the main repository for its historical records.

Nearly 50 cubic feet--or 121 boxes--of material currently housed at the U, such as reports, correspondence, meeting minutes, and building plans, happen to document the American YMCA's work on spreading Christian values and Western sports in China during the first half of the 20th century. The "Reaching for Gold" exhibit, says archivist Dave Klaassen, showcases items that about 100 American YMCA missionaries in China--or "secretaries," as they were called--had sent home.

Sure, the missionaries brought bibles to China, but in 1896 they also carried "The Thirteen Rules of Basketball" and introduced the game to the Chinese. (James Naismith invented basketball at the YMCA international training center in Springfield, Massachusetts.) They also taught their Chinese friends to play volleyball and tennis, and they organized athletic meets for YMCA members and students at the local schools. At that point, the Chinese tradition of sports grew primarily out of military drills and calisthenics, with little concept of team sports for recreation and fitness.

Olympics trivia

* Nearly 10,000 athletes from 204 countries are competing over a fortnight in 28 events for about 300 gold medals.

* The 2008 Olympic mascots are the five Fuwa, a.k.a. "Friendlies": a fish (Beibei), a panda (Jingjing), a flame (Huanhuan), Tibetan antelope (Yingying), and a swallow (Nini). Each Fuwa corresponds to a color of the Olympic rings. When the first syllable of each of the five names are said together, the phrase means "Beijing welcomes you."

To learn more about the 2008 Beijing Olympics, see the official Web site.

In time, the local YMCA meets grew to a national athletic competition. Basketball was one of the sports. The YMCA secretaries then organized the first Far Eastern Championship Games, originally named the Far Eastern Olympics, in 1913, which brought together athletes from China, Japan, and the Philippines.

"The purpose of the Far Eastern games was actually to train athletes for the Olympics," says Getz. "Neither China, Japan, or the Philippines had a forum then for people to qualify for the Olympics." The first modern Olympiad was held in Greece in 1896. China made its debut in 1932 with a six-member delegation and entered the Winter Olympic Games in 1980 with 28 athletes. Team China has a whopping 639 athletes competing in the 2008 summer games in all 28 sports. "[I want people to leave the exhibit] knowing the role the YMCA played in bringing modern sports to China and sort of having a dream 100 years ago that the Olympics was something that China could do, and then inspiring people, as they say, to reach for the gold," say Getz.

A version of the exhibit, created in collaboration with the YMCA of Hong Kong, is currently on display at YMCA facilities in several cities in China. There is also an online version of the exhibit.

If you visit... The "Reaching for Gold" exhibit hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and starting September 6, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. For directions to the exhibit, see Elmer L. Andersen Library.

To learn more about the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, visit the University of Minnesota Libraries.