China Gets the Gold!
The Beijing Olympics
by Gene Ching & Andy Ching
Friday the 13th, 2001, may go down in history as one of the most important moments for the advancement of kungfu. Following a decisive session in Moscow, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced the election of Beijing as the host city for the XXIX Olympic Games in 2008. It was the result of a long and arduous process. Eight years ago, haunted by the ghost of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Beijing lost the opportunity to host the 2000 Olympics to Sydney by two votes. Athens won the honor for 2004. For 2008, ten cities applied initially: Bangkok, Beijing, Cairo, Havana, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Paris, Seville, and Toronto. As per Olympic regulations, the field was narrowed to five candidate-cites, Beijing leading with 44 votes, followed by Toronto (20 votes) Istanbul (17) Paris (15) then Osaka (6.) Osaka dropped out. After only one more round of voting, Beijing swept the election with an overwhelming 56 votes, leaving the other applicants trailing behind (Toronto 22, Paris 18, and Istanbul 9.)
Samaranch stated in his announcement that "Beijing Games would leave a unique legacy to China and to sports." The President of the People's Republic of China, Jiang Zemin reciprocated by thanking the IOC and saying "The Chinese Government and people will go all out to support Beijing in turning the 2008 Olympic Games into a ground gathering to carry forward the Olympic spirit, promote world peace and enhance friendship among the peoples of the world."
Indeed, the Olympics has only been hosted by an Asian country twice before, Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988 (although Japan also hosted the winter Olympics twice: Sapporo 1972 and Nagano 1998.) Tokyo was scheduled to host in 1940, but then the world took a different and disastrous turn, canceling that Olympiad as well as the one that followed. Actually, changing the locations of the Olympics so they rotate around the world is relatively new. Originally, the Olympics were held in Olympia Valley in Greece, beginning in 776 BCE and competing every fours years for almost 1200 years.
Our modern day Olympics were created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. Held in Athens, those first games were for men only with about 250 competitors in 43 events. At the most recent 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the world's most magnificent gathering for peace has grown to 10,000 athletes competing in 300 events. In 2004, the Olympics return to Athens and for 17 days in August 2004, the world will watch nearly 11,000 athletes from 200 countries compete in 28 sports (296 events.) Then it's on to China and with luck, the world will watch a new event - Wushu.
The Martial Legacy of the Olympics
The Olympics are well-rooted in warrior skills. While every sport is symbolic combat, some are far more martial than others. Many modern Olympic events are directly descended from martial disciplines. The 28 official Olympic events at Sydney were Archery, Athletics, Badminton, Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Canoeing, Cycling, Equestrian Sports, Fencing, Football, Gymnastics, Handball, Hockey, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Rowing, Sailing, Shooting, Softball, Swimming, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Tennis, Triathlon, Volleyball, Weightlifting, and Wrestling, of which eight are directly martial: Archery, Boxing, Fencing, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Shooting, Taekwondo, and Wrestling. Five are combat sports, two are target sports, and then there is Modern Pentathlon, one of the most unique because it is a martial skills competition conceived specifically for the Olympics. Originally only military officers were allowed to participate. The Pentathlon is comprised of five events: One-touch Epee Fencing, 10-meter air pistol at a stationary target, 3,000-meter cross-country run, 200-meter swim and a 400-meter jumping course horse race (these events were originally more rigorous, but have been toned down over the years.)
These five events were based on the skills of a military courier of the time and were traditionally taught at military academies. Olympics founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, designed this sport himself and introduced it in 1912. In that debut contest, America fielded a 26-year-old second lieutenant, a skilled rider and fencer whose poor marksmanship knocked him out of the gold, down to fifth. That officer was George S. Patton. Nevertheless, if the pentathlon perspective is applied to the modern Olympics, then perhaps the definition of warrior related sports can also be expanded to include seven more events such as Athletics, Canoeing, Equestrian Sports, Gymnastics, Rowing, Swimming, and Triathlon, giving over half of all the Olympic sports a martial undertone. But still, the majority of the Olympic games, martial or non-martial, are of Western origin like baseball and basketball. The only outstanding non-Western games are distinctly martial arts.
Every host country has the opportunity to introduce a new event, and as you might expect, that country usually introduces something that represent their national pride and something they will win. However, the IOC must approve any new sport and they look at new sports for their International appeal, not to glorify any single country, even the host country. Typically, the new sport is introduced as a demonstration sport first, where it stays for a probationary period until it is accepted as an official sport. However, in some cases, a new sport can be inserted as an official game at the onset. Since the Olympics are an international cooperative effort, any change must go through due process and be reviewed by the IOC. As one might imagine, this can be a challenging process where nothing is guaranteed. Every new sport must prove its worthiness as a worldwide competition to stand amongst the other games. Since only Japan and Korea have hosted the Olympics, there are only two Asian events, Judo and Taekwondo.
In 1964, when Tokyo became the first Asian country ever to host an Olympiad, they introduced Judo as a new official sport. Judo was a natural choice for Japan and Japan dominated the first games. But to everyone's surprise, Antonius Geesink of Holland took the gold for the Men's Open division at the very first competition. Skeptics still frowned believing that Japan would dominate it for years to come. Due to the Euro-centricity of the Olympics, the two Asian sports were greeted with more resistance than other new candidates. Japan's feared dominance would remain untested at the next Olympics, the controversial 1968 Mexico City Games. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 30 university students were killed in a protest just before the games. Additionally, black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute to protesting racism in the U.S. forever immortalizing Mexico City in the American psyche. The United States Olympic committee immediately kicked Smith and Carlos off the team.
Amidst all the controversy, Judo did not participate in 1968, so it was not until 1972 that Judo was again put on trial. This time, Willem Ruska of Holland struck gold twice in both the Men's Heavyweight and the Men's Open divisions and Shota Chochoshvili of the USSR captured the Men's Half Heavyweight division. It became evident that Japan would not dominate at all. Judo had become a world caliber game for everyone to participate.
Taekwondo was introduced as a demonstration sport in when Seoul hosted the Olympics in 1988. It had a difficult beginning. Marred by a shocking protest by one of the competitors, much of the international news focused on the scandal instead of the new sport. In a critical bout, American Jay Warwick was knocked out by three-time world Champion Chung Kook-Hyun of Korea. The judges ended the match despite Warwick's insistence that he could continue fighting. Instead of accepting the judge's decision, that Warwick sat in protest, right in the middle of the tournament floor. Images of this lone fighter sitting in protest in a darkened hall were broadcast around the world, much to the dismay of those who had worked so hard to promote Taekwondo and get it into the Olympics. It was not the image any sport vying for Olympic status would want. However, Taekwondo persisted in its bid for Olympic status and Warwick went on to become the Executive Director of the United States Taekwondo Union.
Taekwondo maintained demonstration status in 1992, and due to various factors, it was not entered at all in 1996. Finally in 2000, Taekwondo became an official sport in Sydney, but Korea's dominance of the sport is still questionable. While South Korea led the pack with 3 gold medals, Australia, China, Cuba, Greece, and the United States each captured a gold as well. However, this was probably a result of intentional manipulations by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) to avoid criticism that this would remain a Korean-dominated event. Like Judo, Taekwondo was stereotyped as too foreign - too Asian - for an event that boasts racial and cultural equality. To counteract critics, the WTF limited each country (except the host Australia) to four competitors only, where eight golds were to be awarded. Nevertheless, the WTF's plan was successful. Nearly 50 countries entered the event and despite a few typical complaints about judging, Taekwondo entered the Olympic fields to stand proudly amongst the other sports.
At the next Olympiad in 2004, the Board of Directors of Athens has submitted Water Skiing for candidature to the IOC. Several other International Athletic Federations have also presented their sports for candidature including Squash, Technical Swimming, Billiards and Bowling. But the most interesting potential candidate to us is clear - Karate has also been presented for candidature in 2004. While Karate is an unlikely winner, if it were to win, that may well have an effect on the chances of another martial art being accepted in 2008.
The Olympics and the Sleeping Dragon
China's participation in the Olympics, like her participation in world affairs, has been limited up until very recently. China sent her first Olympic competitor - a lone athlete - to Los Angeles in 1932. Sprinter Liu Changchun failed to win any medals back then and China continued to win nothing in Berlin in 1936 or London in 1948 (as mentioned earlier, the world was too preoccupied for the Olympics in 1940 and '44.) In 1949, communists seized power in China and the mainland stopped participating, although much to their chagrin, Taiwan continued to play. It wasn't until 1984 that China returned to Los Angeles for the Olympics (although they sent did send athletes to the previous Winter Olympics.) Immediately China became a powerhouse amongst the competing countries. Just four Olympics later, China placed third in the world for overall gold medals at Sydney (USA: 39, Former USSR: 32, China: 28.)
In the martial sports, the People's Republic of China's (PRC) performance has been respectable, despite not being a regular part of the Chinese curriculum of games. Although the PRC has never won a medal for boxing, wrestling or pentathlon, she has scored numerous medals in shooting, with over half a dozen in 2000. China has fared well in archery, a sport dominated by South Koreans, earning two silvers by Li Lingjuan 1984 in and He Yang in 1996. China rocked the fencing world with Luan Jujie seizing the gold from the Europeans in women's foil in 1984. Wang Huifeng took the silver two Olympics later, and the PRC's men's team foil took the silver and the women's team epee took the bronze in 2000. In the martial arts, China's women were holding up half of heaven by 2000. In Judo, Yuan Hua took the gold in women's heavyweight, Li Shufang and Liu Yuxiang medalled in women's half middleweight and half lightweight respectively. And in Taekwondo, Chen Zhong won the gold in women's heavyweight.
Earning the right to host the Olympic games is a landmark for the PRC, and given knee-jerk anticommunist sentiment in the United States, it is a very controversial decision. Early in the decision process, some members of U.S. Congress lobbied the IOC for the games to be moved elsewhere. While the Bush administration has been suspiciously silent about this whole affair, world reaction to Bush's international policy, especially in regards to his anti-environmental stance on the Kyoto treaty, has led to an international backlash against the United States. So instead, the actions of Congress against China actually resulted in an increase of 10 votes for Beijing from the IOC.
The very nature of the Olympics as a cooperative world effort has always been surrounded by politics. In 1936, Hitler used the Olympics to glorify Nazism. In 1980, the Carter administration staged a boycott against the Moscow Olympics since the communist Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan. Now in the light of China's human rights abuses such as oppression of religious groups, political activists, and even non-Chinese scholars, the PRC's capital, Beijing, will face worldwide scrutiny. However, many view this as an opportunity to accelerate openness for China. Henry Kissinger, a non-voting member of the IOC and a prominent politician in the U.S. relationship to the PRC, commented, "I think this is a very important step in the evolution of China's relationship with the world." The IOC tactfully labeled Beijing's political system as "working for China." And on the business side, the PRC has become Japan's second largest trading partner, as well as the fourth largest trading partner for both the United States and the European Union, so there are many interests at work, human rights issues notwithstanding. One thing is for certain, Beijing's winning Olympic bid shows the world wants more from the PRC and is willing to give China the international "face" she has always desired.
When the announcement came, the Chinese community celebrated worldwide. In San Francisco, Kungfu Qigong representative Andy Ching reported from an influential celebration party attended by Raymond Mah of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (Chinese Six Companies) in charge of making foreign affairs functional, as well as Dong Chuanjie, Division Chief of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council of the PRC and his secretary Chen Qiang. It was a festive evening and everyone was extremely happy. Andy asked Mr. Dong to comment on both China's relationship to the United States and the possibility of Wushu as a new Olympic sport.
Mr. Dong said, "American and Chinese people are two good people. Actually the two peoples will find many things in common and we can and we will have a very good friendship between our two peoples in the future." He was very optimistic about the chances for Wushu to become an exhibition sport. According to Dong, "Although I'm not an expert in this field, I think its quite possible that at the 2008 Olympic games, Wushu will probably be one of the competition items. That's possible. You know as more and more people practice Wushu, it is getting known and more popular worldwide, so it's not surprising of it is accepted as one of competition games."
Wushu seems like the best candidate for China's new sport and it has for years. Already a featured highlight of the Asian Games, Wushu exponents have been aggressively pushing for Wushu to enter the Olympics. Of all the competition forms of Kungfu, Wushu has the strictest standards and is well organized on an international level. It is primed for the Olympics. If Wushu gets entered, it will probably focus on Wushu Taolu or forms competition. What remains in question is Wushu Sanda, or free sparring. In contrast, when Taekwondo became Olympic, only free sparring was entered. Taekwondo Poomse (forms) were not. If China does submit Wushu, will Sanda also be submitted under the Wushu umbrella? We will know by 2008.
Some traditional kungfu practitioners are skeptical about the ramifications of Wushu becoming an Olympic sport. There has always been a schism between modern Wushu and traditional kungfu. Many view Wushu as "not real" or a communist fabrication. The intention of modern Wushu was standardization for competition, which certainly comprises much of the great diversity of Kungfu. However, this is a two-edged sword. Wushu is designed for competition; traditional kungfu is not. There is no way that traditional kungfu can participate in the Olympics in its current state. The main problem is the magnitude. Obviously all the kungfu styles cannot compete in the Olympics -- Olympic gold is tightly restricted, as well it should be. When Taekwondo can only award eight golds, how can kungfu possibly give face to all of its different styles, especially given the vast difference between them? Standardization for competition is essential and Wushu offers the best solution overall. When any of the traditional styles can bring their competition standards up to snuff, they can make a bid for international games. Until then, save the traditional kungfu for personal practice.
Many traditionalists are also intimidated by the direct impact Olympic Wushu will have upon their own arts. They fear it will overshadow their "real kungfu" and the "real kungfu" will die out. But this is a cowardly argument to come from warriors. If your style dies with your generation, it is your fault. You cannot blame others for not passing down your tradition. What's more, if your "real kungfu" dies out, perhaps Darwin is at work and it is no longer functional in the present environment. So much for "real."
But in all likelihood, traditional kungfu will only be strengthened by the advancement of Wushu. Since Wushu is highly competitive - the very flower of kungfu - it fades quickly. Only athletes in their prime can excel in it. Once that flower withers, most Wushu athletes return to traditional kungfu as a practice for longevity. Like gymnastics, Wushu athletes have a narrow window for competition, the teen years to through the twenties, and then it is on to the old school of kungfu. Contemporary Wushu plants its roots in traditional kungfu. When autumn comes, it returns to those roots, and sows the seed for the next generation.
It is notable that the precedent martial arts have suffered no such problems. After over almost four decades of Olympic competition, the whole world knows Judo and traditional Judo has no evidence of fading, not to mention how much Judo's "traditional" cousin, Jujitsu, has grown immensely, especially with the Brazilian influence and Sport Jujitsu. Taekwondo split into two main governing bodies, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) and the United World Taekwondo Association (UWTA.) The WTF governs the Olympic competitions and has standardized the Poomse into Taeguek and Palgwe. The UWTA oversees traditional Taekwondo, maintaining the countless other traditional Poomse. Both organizations have grown significantly with Taekwondo's Olympic participation. Given this light, traditional "real" kungfu stands to benefit immeasurably by Olympic Wushu.
Go for the Gold!
Now is the time for the kungfu community to really pull together on a worldwide level. If Wushu can become an Olympic sport, it would be an extraordinary occurrence for the kungfu world, elevating all the Chinese martial arts higher than ever before. Through our united efforts, we can advance kungfu farther than we ever imagined, but it is going to take cooperation, dedication and resolve on the international stage. This is an opportunity that will not come again for a very long time, it ever, so we must seize it with all our might. Everyone preaches how great kungfu is, now is the time to show it.
Much of this will actually come from us, not China. For Wushu to be accepted as an Olympic Game, it must demonstrate that the whole world can play. The kungfu world must work diligently to field strong athletes that can beat the PRC at it's own game. Impossible? It wasn't so for Judo or Taekwondo. We have seven years. By then, all of today's champions will be long past their competitive prime. Now more than ever, we must focus on tomorrow. The battle isn't over with Beijing getting the Olympics. The battle is just beginning.
Written by Gene Ching & Andy Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM