While my first post was mainly focused on my first impressions of the Vango sports facility and it’s institutional culture, this post will be more focused on the culture of sport and competition in China is a whole.
First of the question of why Vango is located where it is must be answered. After the Beijing Olympics ended the Chinese government went looking for things to fill the many newly vacant sports facilities that had been constructed for the competition. The fencing coach I’ve had the most interactions with, Xu Jiaolian, was actually one of the original Vango coaches that came to found the Beijing club. The number of young children at the club currently is incredible though. While there is really one training room for the adult fencers, the bottom floor has at least double the space set aside for children, a significant portion of which isn’t even for actual fencing, just physical training and conditioning. My personal experience is that they do a very good job at it as well. My first time actually fencing there I was set against four younger fencers of various ages in four back to back bouts. While I was a bit out of practice, The strength of their performances against me, combined with their footwork and blade work indicated a high level of skill and training.
These young fencers are the visible manifestation of China’s drive to succeed in international sport. In my discussion with Xu Jiaolian I found out that he went to one of China’s sports schools as a child for fencing after being picked out as a promising candidate due to his training in Taekwondo. He told me that at the time very few Chinese really knew what fencing was, the recent success China witnessed at the Olympic games (you can watch the London Gold medal bout for foil here) in fencing would make one inclined to think that the significant investment the nation has put into grooming young fencers has paid off at least in that regard. Xu Jiaolian informed me that part of this drive for young athletes has been assisted by a bias in selecting the younger athlete, all other things being equal. He explained that when the scoring system China uses to rank fencers for qualification for the national team results in two fencers with a tied ranking, the government will select the younger fencer “every time.” This I believe in many ways explains the dramatic difference I have witnessed in attitude between the younger fencer’s training and the older fencers training. While both take group lessons, I have yet to see an adult fencer take a private lesson, and the coaches quickly clear out the adult gym at closing time, while there were enough children taking private lessons on the day I watched them that fourteen or fifteen coaches were around and I didn’t realize that it was technically after closing time until I saw the clock. The adults I was informed by Andrew (one of the two American fencers I’ve met at the club), are there really for the fitness, a fun way to stay in shape, while the prominent display of pictures of successful child competitors from the club, clearly display the emphasis for competitive fencing for the young kids.
An additional answer for why there is so much interest among younger children in fencing however was also provided by Andrew, the fact that many schools in China are incorporating fencing into the physical education curriculum. Again, its position as an active indoor sport makes it an attractive option for physical activity in a Chinese city. This is interesting because in the states, while the occasional high school might have a fencing team, fencing does not have any substantial traction as a fitness activity or a common sport that schools would provide access to in the states. While the Chinese education system clearly sees the advantage of introducing a sport to kids that can keep them active for life even if they don’t go on to be Olympians (a fact displayed by the older fencers at Vango, and one often pointed out by my fencing coach in the states), it certainly doesn’t seem to have the same attraction for schools in the United States, which raises questions as to what differences have led to the different outcomes in fencing’s exposure in schools in both countries.
The level of intensity in competition even at the younger levels is fierce. One night while I was at the club Xu Jiaolian told me he had gotten a call telling him that one of the fencers from Vango at a tournament in Shanghai had been forced to withdraw because the judges had ruled that his x-ray showed the hand of a kid who was too old. Apparently since there is so much fraud surrounding the age on athletes ID papers, many upper level tournaments require a x-ray picture of the hand in order to verify age. On the other hand Xu Jiaolian said that at some low level tournaments, referees will just give automatic wins to whichever fencer is taller, using what can pose an advantage in a bout as an iron rule of victory.
The focus on athletic excellence at Vango, and for Chinese sport in general does however have in my opinion a significant positive, the amount of attention in training not just paid to directly fencing related skills, but in total body fitness. Upon entering Vango you can see usually see through a window into a gym of kids flipping tires or jumping rope. Even older fencers are made to do stretches not only to warm up, but also to increase flexibility. The previously mentioned focus that older fencers have on using the sport as a fun way to stay fit is incorporated seamlessly into the at times seemingly strict regimen of training for competition.
In conclusion, the focus on athletic success by the Chinese government is reflected in Vango’s goal to accomplish the same. The type of people who make up the coaching staff reflect these priorities and their manifestation through the Chinese sports system they grew up and competed in. This drive for athletic success has manifested itself in a drive for younger competitors, but fencing has been able to avoid losing appeal among those who don’t fit the future Olympian model. All in all, fencing in China clearly demonstrates sports varied use as a tool of national competitiveness, education, and physical fitness, and its relationship to the rest of the Chinese sports model is one that will be continuously interesting to watch develop.