Dog days

Mentioning demonstrators and the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the same sentence is enough to give shudders to International Olympic Committee members, who’ve already watched Free Tibet activists unfurl red banners embroidered with barbed-wire Olympic rings at the competition complex in China and at the 2004 Summer Games closing ceremonies in Athens.

But not every demonstration in the city that can’t shake its reputation as a human-rights violator – an early attempt to revamp Tiananmen Square’s image by hosting the beach volleyball competition there was rebuffed by savvy IOCers – will be political: Dozens of the world’s top Tai Chi Chuan practitioners in 2008 will gather in a Beijing gym to demonstrate their craft.

Demonstration sports are a keystone of the Olympics. It’s the global equivalent of having to play whichever board games are stashed in your friend’s closet: When the Olympics went to Norway in 1952, the Osloians broke out their bandy sticks. Korfball was deemed legit by the planning committee in Amsterdam. And Americans treated the world to mountain biking and beach volleyball.

Most demonstration sports today aren’t introduced as mere novelties; their appearance on a Games schedule serves notice that full Olympic status is being seriously pursued. Asheville’s Chinese New Year Celebration this week offers a preview of what worldwide Tai Chi Chuan competition might look like. Competitors from nearly every Tai Chi hotspot on the East Coast will participate in the celebration’s Southern Appalachian Chinese Martial Arts Tournament, which will be judged according to stringent international standards.

“This is something we’ve been championing for 25 years,” says organizer Mark Small of Tai Chi’s impending Olympic acceptance.

Small hopes a future Olympian might emerge from his tournament, which is the first exclusively Chinese martial-arts competition held in Asheville.

Small, who has been involved in martial arts since before Bruce Lee galvanized a new generation of Kung Fu students, says Chinese arts were long ignored by Americans blinded by the flashier lethal-combat moves of karate. Small’s students at Mountain Dragon Kung Fu often had to compete in the “Karate, Chinese Style” bracket. But Tai Chi has lately become a respected discipline in its own right, even in traditionally out-of-the-way martial-arts regions like Western North Carolina.

“We’re virgin territory, but I know it’s now time for the venue,” Small says.

So just what is Tai Chi Chuan? (Or Tai Jiguan, depending on your translator.) Most Americans mistakenly think of it as the province of old folks struggling to stay limber, a misconception that undermines its claim to athleticism and may have delayed the sport’s enshrinement as Olympic material: It’s hard to imagine elderly people whipping through Prospect Park on a bobsled or leaping through a quick steeplechase relay.

Tai Chi is “the art of contending,” and its champions, unlike speed skaters or wrestlers, don’t finish first or beat their opponents into submission. It’s a highly technical sport, like floor gymnastics, in which entrants complete a set of compulsory postures. The most perfect performance wins. There’s very little screaming, and virtually no blood.

“You use more mental and less physical exertion,” explains Small. “Anyone can be physical. The idea is to redirect other people’s energy by controlling your own. That’s what makes it uniquely Chinese.”

All that energy conservation makes for a more serene competition than, say, korfball. But Small guarantees there will be plenty of sweat shed as the participants flow through the required movements, which will be graded on a relatively unforgiving scale sanctioned by international governing bodies.

“Too often, tournaments can be provincial and tailored to the depth or shallowness of the area,” Small points out.

In addition to Tai Chi, the tournament will feature Kung Fu demonstrations and a lion-dance competition, a highly choreographed form in which dancers cloak themselves in a group lion costume and mimic the animal’s movements by swishing, swaying and standing on each other’s shoulders, all to the beat of a drum-and-cymbal soundtrack.

“It’s very athletic,” says Small, whose students are foregoing the shoulder stands this year but plan to incorporate at least a few didja-see-that? lifts.

The lion dance is considered a good-luck start to the New Year, which officially began Jan. 29. Year 4073 is the Year of the Dog, an animal prized by Chinese Zodiac followers for its companionship, earnest communication and loyalty.

“It’s an attribute for the entire year, so it makes you think deeply,” Small offers.

The lineup for the celebration also includes acupuncture and massage; children’s activities and a Chinese buffet, although last week the menu was still being developed.

“Dumplings are the usual specialty, but we don’t brag on those,” Small says humbly, in the spirit of the year.

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]

The Chinese New Year Celebration and Southern Appalachian Chinese Martial Arts Tournament at Montford Recreation Center (34 Pearson Drive) happens Saturday, Feb. 4, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets cost $8/adults, $3/children under 12 and $5/adult admission after 3 p.m. Price includes buffet. Call 285-2929 for more information.



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