In July 1966, China’s major newspaper, The People’s Daily, published on its front page a large photograph of Chairman Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze River. The press note that accompanied the photograph declared that Mao had managed to swim 15 kilometers in just 65 minutes. This is four times the current world record for this distance.
Mao was then 73-years old and potbellied—yet he managed to swim faster than any Olympic swimmer. There was a political agenda behind Mao’s swim in the Yangtze. Having declared the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution on May 16, 1966, he wanted to show to the Chinese people that, despite his age, he was a powerful man, and that he was fit to rule China. He had employed the strategy of swimming in the Yangtze River several times in the past to prove his power.
Years after Mao’s death, his personal physician Li Zhisui revealed that Mao did not swim in the Yangtze. There was so much gas in his potbelly that he did not sink when he lay down on the river’s water. He bobbed up and down downstream for a short distance.