Let’s begin with two opposing statements, a yin and a yang, so to speak: Wushu will be included in the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Wushu will not be included in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Which is true? For all intents and purposes, they both are.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. First things first: What the heck is wushu?
It is the national sport of China. More accurately, it is China’s national sports — wushu, it seems, is the umbrella term for a disparate range of activities. Some are blatantly combative, akin to kickboxing or wrestling, while others are more gymnastic, celebrating individual grace rather than brute force.
Traditional wushu has been practiced throughout China for thousands of years, with each region, and many individual teachers, formulating their own styles. In 1949 the Communist Party created wushu in a concerted effort to formalize and nationalize Chinese martial arts. Committees were formed, rules were drawn up, and two principle disciplines were defined.
The first is san shou, a form of one-on-one fighting. Wearing protective boxing-style gloves, chest protectors and headgear, the combatant attempts to topple his opponent out of the marked arena using a combination of punches, kicks and throws. It is aggressive and frenetic, with bouts usually consisting of three two-minute rounds.
The second discipline, taolu, sees competitors perform a choreographed routine in front of five judges who score each performance on a scale of one to 10. Some routines are executed bare-handed, while others involve the use of swords or spears. This is gymnastics with attitude, a sublime fusion of kung-fu and ballet.
Taolu, in all its guises, is the predominant form of wushu, and over the decades it has become established in 86 countries, including the United States, where the presiding body is the United States of America Wushu- Kungfu Federation (http://www.usawkf.org). The global popularity of wushu is enhanced by blockbuster movies featuring the former wushu champion, Li Lian-jie, better known as Jet Li. Among Li’s most famous films is the action-packed Shaolin Temple trilogy, set in the real-life Buddhist monastery of Shaolin (http://www.shaolin.org.cn), where for centuries monks have practiced wushu as part of their quest for enlightenment.
Wushu is also featured in hit movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, further bolstering the sport’s exotic mystique. With its marriage of grace and power, physical exertion and mental serenity, wushu continues to attract converts, especially in Western countries where it offers an antidote to the stresses of modern life. In fact, it’s estimated that 80 percent of wushu practitioners are non-Asian.
But back to the Olympics conundrum: Encouraged by its increasingly global appeal, China has persistently lobbied for wushu to be accorded official Olympic status. When the Olympic Committee named Beijing as the site of the 2008 Olympic Games, China hoped wushu would finally be included as an Olympic sport or, at the very least, as a demonstration sport.
Unmoved by pleas for its inclusion, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, stuck to a commitment to limit the number of Olympic sports to 28.
So began a process of political agility worthy of the wushu arena.
Call it a happy coincidence or a skillful compromise, in August at the precise time Beijing is hosting the Olympic Games, the city will also be staging the 2008 Olympic Wushu Tournament. Though it’s not an official part of the Games, the tournament does have the blessing of the IOC. Yin and yang.
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