Competition tough

Spikers in China

by Matthew Fisher

Every Canadian athlete who has visited China is familiar with the expression, “Friendship first, competition second.”

Back in the early ’70s, when the University of British Columbia pioneered sport exchanges with the newly emerging China, the idea was very much to play a series of friendly matches.

While “friendship” remains a central theme in Chinese sport, “competition” has been upgraded as the Chinese prepare for their inevitable entry to the Olympic Games.

The recent Peking Invitational Volleyball Tournament is a good example. Teams from five countries played a round robin in men’s and women’s divisions, with the matches arranged so that the two powerhouses, Japan and China, would meet in the final.

Canadian women’s team captain, Audrey Vandervelden, compared the Chinese teams she saw this May with those she played in China four years ago.

“They have improved tremendously,” she said. “They are much stronger in every aspect of the game and have good depth. They also seem to want to win more now.

Depth was shown often as the Canadian women lost 15-1, 15-6, and 15-2. Lesser provincial sides like Shanghai beat the Canadians 15-11, 15-1, and 15-4. The Canadian men fared little better, scoring just a few more points and only occasionally taking a set from the Chinese men.

While volleyball matches were played almost daily during the three week visit, the players had opportunities for sightseeing and shopping.

There were visits to the Chou En Lai memorial at the Museum of History, the Ming tombs and the Great Wall, and the Winter and Summer Palaces of China’s former rulers. Popular purchases during visits to the “Friendship Store,” where goods are sold to foreigners only, were hand-painted fans and eggs, and traditional Chinese wallhangings.

The teams also watched the Peking Dance Company and the circus in Shanghai. Decked out in marvellously bright costumes (in contrast to the drab Mao outfits worn on the streets), the performers kept the sellout audiences enthralled.

Highlights were the Lily dance, where several dozen dancers swayed and glided across a stage of make-believe water, and the performance of two voice throwers at the circus who, aided by microphones, turned the arena into an aviary, a dive bomber, a steam engine, and a dozen other things.

In Peking, the locals were friendly towards the outsized Westerners, but were not particularly curious.

All that changed when the Canadian team toured Nanking, Shanghai and Canton after the tournament. To walk down the street was to induce stares or acquire a crowd of gawking admirers.

And the banquets, an entertainment in themselves in Peking, became two and three-hour spectacles in the less-travelled centres. Although there were certain similarities to western-style Chinese cooking, it would be difficult to imagine eating dove’s egg soup, thousand-year-old duck, or Nanking duck, anywhere but China.

During the volleyball tournament, athletes from other sports shared the Friendship (of course) Hotel with the Canadians. The world field hockey champions, Pakistan, had sent their national junior team to play China, while a group of rhythmic gymnasts from Toronto were in town giving demonstrations. There were world class archers, weightlifters and football players from Malta, Mexico, North Korea and several African countries. The All- China Sports Federation was footing the bill for everyone.

What’s in it for the Chinese can readily be seen after a brief visit to the Peking Spare Time Sports School.

Outside the old school buildings, several hundred big teenagers are practising volleyball and basketball on dirt courts. Inside, several hundred smaller athletes are working on gymnastics’ routines. In another hall, perhaps 1,000 children are playing table tennis. Most are barely able to see over the table but they played with a tremendous ferocity, smashing and slicing like old masters. Each table was watched over by an adult referee. Coaches sat in the background passing on advice to their prodigies by a slight movement of their hands. Several days and many rounds later, one of the tykes would emerge as the Peking Schools’ champion.

The Chinese people, only now coming on to the world’s political scene after several decades of insularity, will be a major power in international sport very soon.

Although officials decline to be interviewed, they readily admit in private conversation that they expect to be at the 1984 Olympics. This winter, for the first time, China sent skiers to the World Alpine and Nordic championships, finishing last in every event.

With more teams at world championships in the future, such as the basketball World’s in Manila in October, and with more and more teams visiting China, it is most unlikely that China will finish anywhere near last in 1984 or in the years that follow.

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