Dragon boating still seeking IOC recognition

Paddling to Olympics

2024-06-14

Dragon boat racing will be featured as a demonstration sport at the upcoming Paris Olympic Games after the sport's first appearance on the Olympic stage at Tokyo 2020, according to International Canoe Federation President Thomas Konietzko.

As one of the most iconic and widespread customs to mark the Duanwu Festival, or Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, dragon boat racing events are held across China as one of the festive celebrations.

Daoxian county in Central China's Hunan Province broke the Guinness World Record for the "largest dragon boat race (team)" earlier in June when 212 boats took part in a local event.

Zhou Jingzhong, Party chief of the county's bureau of culture, tourism, radio, television and sports, told the Global Times that the local government has been dedicated to carrying on the time-honored tradition of dragon boat racing. "In Daoxian county, the dragon boat event dates back to 1,000 years ago. All the participants from around Hunan gather here during the Dragon Boat Festival every year for the race on the Xiaoshui River. All the boats are handmade by local paddlers," said Zhou.

Daoxian county, formerly known as Daozhou in ancient times, has a 1,000-year-old dragon boat tradition dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), according to the People's Government of Hunan Province. In 2021, the county's dragon boat customs were included on the national list of intangible cultural heritage.

Increasing popularity

Since the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, dragon boat racing has been included as an official event in the Asian Games for three times, showcasing its significant role in Asian sports culture. Dragon boat racing is not only a competitive sport, but also embodies the universal values of teamwork, perseverance, and cultural appreciation.

In October 2023, Indonesia broke China's dominance to win gold in the men's 1,000-meter dragon boat race at the Hangzhou Asian Games.

Outside of Asia, dragon boat racing has experienced considerable expansion in Europe, North America and Africa, drawing enthusiasts from various cultural backgrounds. Many cities host major dragon boat festivals, incorporating the sport into local customs and promoting cultural exchanges.

According to the Royal Docks of London, 40 teams competed in the annual London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at the Royal Docks, showing that the event is gaining popularity and attracting a diverse community.

Despite the high-profile exposure at the Olympic Games, the sport still faces some hurdles in gaining the recognition of International Olympic Committee.

Zhou said that the financial implications of adding a new sport to the Olympics, including equipment, training facilities, venues and event organization, can be significant.

"Dragon boat races are limited by the water body availability and we need to present the sport as logistically feasible; dragon boat racing might look at streamlining its needs to become more Olympic-friendly," Zhou noted.

Distinctive heads

Among the folk tales concerning the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival, the most influential one is related to Qu Yuan, who was a loyal statesman and a patriotic poet in Chu, a major state in the Warring States Period (475BC-221BC). He was unjustly exiled by the king of Chu, who disregarded Qu's policy advice.

Devastated by the news of rivaling military forces seizing Chu's capital, Qu eventually plunged himself into the Miluo River, currently Central China's Hunan Province.

After Qu drowned himself to death, local people rowed out on the river to search for his body, which evolved into the dragon boat racing.

The annual dragon boat race held in Daoxian county is a large-scale traditional folk event that has been popular for thousands of years. It commemorates both Qu and Zhou Dunyi, who is a Neo-Confucian philosopher from the Song Dynasty and was born in Daoxian county.

The county's folk tradition features activities such as dragon boat racing, dragon head carving, and worshiping. The tradition fosters strong cohesion and high social participation, encompassing cultural elements such as festivals, competition, cuisine, and cultural heritage.

Wang Jianwen, Party chief of the county's cultural center, told the Global Times that different from boats in other provinces of China, the dragon head of the boat in Daoxian county is its most distinctive feature, showcasing a variety of shapes, bold and exaggerated carving techniques, and vibrant, striking colors.

"The design and colors of the boat head are closely linked to local temples, ancestral halls, and archways. Each dragon head serves as a cultural icon for a particular village. Before the race, we also hold a series of folk worship activities," Wang noted.

The boat is made from Chinese fir. During dragon boat races, each boat is manned by 20 paddlers, with one person each serving as the commander, drummer, gong striker, and helmsman, totaling 24 people, Wang said.

During the Dragon Boat Festival, natives in Daoxian county living away from home would come back to participate in the dragon boat races, said Zhou. "Currently, the county's dragon boat races have evolved into a large-scale mass sports event and a unique cultural brand that integrates folk customs, fitness, and competition."

The local authorities have invested nearly 1 million yuan ($138,000) since 2015 in efforts to preserve the traditional dragon boat customs, according to Wang.

The county's intangible cultural heritage protection center has conducted field research on the local dragon boat customs, collecting over 100,000 words of documentation, and amassing 2TB of audio, video, and photographic materials. They have gathered more than 50 artifacts, invited national and provincial experts to two seminars on the protection of the customs, Wang said.

Global Times