Modern crews sign on for ancient Chinese dragon boat racing
With no jock hierarchy to discourage participants and a lot of colorful visual exposure via the Beijing Olympic festivities, this paddle sport is seeing a growth spurt in the US.
The first thing you might notice about the motley crew of men and women stretching out along the bank of the Charles River on a recent sultry Sunday afternoon is how different they look from one another. If they weren't lined up two-by-two in matching black-and-white racing shirts with the same logo, you might mistake them as contenders for America's Got Diversity, rather than a dragon-boat team busy making waves on the east coast racing circuit.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yes, you read that right. Dragon-boat team.
These members of the Living Roots team – including a scrappy nuclear engineer, a studly but quiet Jamaican soccer player, a 15-year-old high school student, a pregnant health services executive, a scrawny grad student from India, and an unassuming young elementary schoolteacher – are going to pile into a couple of 40-foot long, 1,500-pound gondolalike canoes made of teak and fiberglass. The boats are tricked out with a dragon head and Chinese drum – about the size of a medium barrel – at the bow. At the stern is a platform for the steerer to command the rudder, while deftly avoiding harm to the dragon tail. (Yes, nautical purists, steerer is correct.)
At the sound of a horn they're going to dig and churn their way upstream – 20 people to a boat – aiming for 11 m.p.h. in the nautical equivalent of, say, drag racing souped-up classic cars.
Dragon-boat racing, which originated in ancient China, is a fast-growing sport – known for its democratic inclusion, both social and physical. If you can hold a paddle, you can be on a team. There's no jock hierarchy to exclude the skinny, the old, or the untrained.
This year about 3,000 teams are expected to compete in races in more than 100 US cities – that's a 20 percent increase over just two years ago. This year's Boston festival, for example, has 31 boats entered, up from 21 a year ago.
It's the walk-on appeal that's driving the growth of the sport, suggests Jay Coakley a sociologist who has written textbooks on sport and society. "The diversity of the teams is related to the fact that ... no credentials are needed, such as playing on a high school team ... taking lessons from so and so. It's democratic and inclusive by default – a refreshing thing for many of us."
He adds that part of the recent interest in the sport in the US has to do with Beijing. "The Olympics is shining a light on China and the complex and mixed scenes and stories we see and hear have attracted a great deal of attention and interest."
Photos of the Olympic torch being paddled across a river in China via dragon boat this spring especially charged paddlers says Sunny Lamm, coordinator of Montreal's annual International Dragon Boat Race Festival (July 26-27). "It's definitely, one of the fastest growing water sports in the world," says Mr. Lamm, who has been paddling and organizing races for a decade and is convinced the reason dragon-boat festivals have been popping up in more cities is that "it's a sport for anyone. We've had kids as young as 12 compete with 95-year-old breast cancer survivors. Really, anyone can learn it."
Dragon boating invites diversity.
• • •