Ma Yanhong Raises the Bar

January 8, 2008
Editor: fyn

Ma Yanhong Raises the Bar
Ma Yanhong got the ball rolling for Chinese gymnastics by winning its first world title and initial women's gold medal at the Olympic sport.

She was among the golden generation of Olympic gymnasts who made a huge splash on their debut at the 1984 Los Angeles Games by sweeping 10 medals, half of them gold.

These days she is more likely to be found on the links than the asymmetric bars, however.

She retired from gymnastics over 20 years ago and now spends her time promoting a very different kind of sport -- golf.

Unless she is too busy healing the broken bodies of retired Chinese athletes, that is. With the support of Aokang Group, the official leather goods supplier of the Beijing Games, Ma has set up a program to help former athletes treat long-standing, sport-induced spinal injuries.

"As a retired athlete, I know that most of us have problems with our vertebrae due to training rigorously for long periods," she said. "After I am treated, I hope to give other athletes access to this so they too can recover."

Olympic shooting champion Yang Ling, "diving sensation" Gao Min and gymnastics world champion Mo Huilan will receive the treatment as part of an initial batch of 100 sports figures.

"They will only be the first group. I won't stop," said Ma.

Ma Yanhong Raises the Bar

She spent over 10 years chasing perfection on the beam and bars and is now paying the price in the form of nagging back problems.

"When training, I was taught never to give up," said the 43-year-old.

She picked up gymnastics at the age of seven and joined Beijing's elite Shichahai Sports School. Due to her stature - slim legs and a lack of lower body strength - she was told in1974 to focus on the uneven bars, which put more emphasis on an athlete's upper body.

After joining the national team in 1978 her career began to flourish.

Ma made her international debut within her first year at the Asian Games, where she won both the team event and uneven bars. She repeated this success at the 1978 Shanghai Cup then peaked at the 1979 World Championships by collecting China's first gymnastics world title at the age of 15.

On the bars, her routines were noted for their difficulty, virtuosity and originality. The dismount she pioneered, a hecht-front salto-full dubbed "the Ma", was awarded the highest difficulty rating at the time.

"I was so lucky," she said. "China had just won back its membership to the International Olympic Committee (in 1979) so we were finally able to take part in the World Championships."

Ma also placed fourth in the all-around at the 1981 worlds, sixth in the same event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and took numerous silver and bronze medals on the floor exercises and balance beam at international competitions.

Then injury struck.

"I thought of retiring in 1983 because I had suffered so many injuries and I just felt weak all of the time," she recalled.

But fate had other plans. At the 1984 Games, Ma tied with American Julianne McNamara to set a new benchmark for China by claiming its first gold medal on the uneven bars.

After retiring from gymnastics, Ma went to Britain to study English in 1987. Two years later, she transferred to Los Angeles to pursue an MBA and began coaching at the L.A. Gymnastics Club in her spare time.

She returned to China in 1994 and was soon named deputy manager of a sports promoter. The 1994 Beijing International Marathon was the first event that was organized by her company.

Now Ma specializes in golf but still commentates at gymnastics competitions - something she hopes to do at the Beijing Games.

She said 2008 should be a lucky year for the host nation.

"At the 1984 Olympics, we earned five gold medals. I hope this year the new athletes can do better than us.

"Our team is strong now. All the conditions are in place. It is time for them to go create a few miracles."

(Source: China Daily/The Olympian)

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