'Diving grandpas' are making a big splash, but is this sensation safe?

Wan Lixin
Elderly men diving 6 meters into Tianjin's Haihe River have become a media sensation, but me-too copycats may be jeopardizing the funfest.
Wan Lixin

The Haihe River in Tianjin, the largest water basin system in northern China, has been found to contain concentrations of 14 heavy metals, and bridges over the river in China's seventh-largest city carry warnings: No Climbing. No Swimming.

So if water frolics are technically banned, why is this river causing such a splash in national headlines?

It seems that retirees diving 6 meters from a bridge into the river are creating a media sensation. And as the popularity of the activity mushrooms, so too safety concerns.

Some of the "grandpa divers" look very fit and have been using the river as part of their daily exercise routines for decades. But now, their activities are drawing big crowds along the adjacent embankments, and an activity spread by social media videos is attracting inexperienced, younger divers.

The most popular bridge with divers is the Shizilin, or Lion Forest Bridge.

But as more and more people – some not so fit – join in the fun, the question lingers: Is this diving safe?

According to some media reports, Tianjin city authorities have been concerned enough to increase police patrols in the area of Shizilin, but no action against the divers has been taken.

'Diving grandpas' are making a big splash, but is this sensation safe?

The "diving grandpas" also work as volunteers trying to dissuade younger, inexperienced young people from trying their luck if they might risk injury.

There's no doubt that the elderly divers are endearing. They speak with a delightful lilt in their Tianjin accents and often entertain onlookers with comic elements in the runup to jumping off the bridge.

One man in his 70s, quotes Confusius before diving: "Isn't it a pleasure to greet friends coming from afar?" Another is heard reciting a limerick that is becoming very popular, "Live one minute, and go easy for 60 seconds."

Pleasantries aside, their jumps and dives display a confidence and aplomb that wins them applause and admiration from onlookers – some of whom join in the fun even if they haven't brought along their swimwear.

Gong Xiuming, 76, said he started diving 20 years ago and enjoys the full support of his family.

One diver interviewed recently by the China Newsweek magazine said he started posting diving videos in 2011, and since 2018, more have been paying attention to the activities. On an average day, up to 100 people, most 60 years and older, join in the sport.

Zhou Wen, an associate professor from Nankai University, said in an interview with China Newsweek that "the diving seniors, by affording us a totally new perspective on their lives, dramatize the potentials of coming to grips with ageing in an active manner."

'Diving grandpas' are making a big splash, but is this sensation safe?

A worker reinforces railings on Shizilin Bridge this week to ensure the safety of spectators enjoying the view of the sensational diving sport.

So why are authorities concerned?

Well, they may have read a report published about 19 months ago on the Science Direct website that documents a study showing concentrations of 14 heavy metals in water, fish and sediment samples in the Haihe River Basin. The study said the concentrations were below Grade III surface water quality standards, though it noted that some of the metals could pose moderate risks.

The work was supported by the National Science and Technology Project of Water Pollution Control and Abatement of China, the Project of Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Then, too, diving or jumping into water from a height of 6 meters into 6.5 meters of water can go horribly wrong if you hit the surface on your back or stomach. Rescue personnel are on hand lest anyone lose consciousness or emerge from the water in a daze. Really serious cases are rushed to a standby ambulance.

'Diving grandpas' are making a big splash, but is this sensation safe?

Fire rescue personnel were on duty on the shore and in the water to ensure divers' safety.

And, occasionally, ship traffic moves under the bridge.

There are also very real risks of injuries as so many young amateurs, encouraged by the feats of these elderly citizens, rush to participate in the activity.

"It's no joke for people with zero experience in diving," one elderly diver told thepaper.cn. "Safety should always come first, and people should not simply try diving because others are doing it."

The costs in police monitoring, medical staff, and rescue teams must be considerable, but then again, governments pour a lot of money into sporting events and exercise programs popular with the public.

So far, local authorities have been equivocating on the legality of the diving activities. Some claim that such a spontaneous exercise lies outside the authority of the Scenic Sight Supervision Administration. Some local governments also cite the bridge's unique location at the convergence of three districts, suggesting it's a bit of a gray area in terms of jurisdiction.

According to Jinyun, a local news app, citing the WeChat account of Hebei District, deaths related to illegal swimming and diving around the bridge were reported in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. It didn't report any more recent accidents.

The "grandpa diving" phenomenon is a popular activity. It's fun, and it would be a shame to see it halted without a deeper, more thorough investigation of safety hazards. Such public exuberance lends itself to community spirit and shouldn't be snuffed out without good cause.

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