Monday, February 20th, 2017

Chinese sepaktakraw struggling against a tough opponent

Published on November 15, 2015 by   ·   No Comments

The French Open, held in Strasbourg in September 2015, saw the organisers really pull out all the stops in terms of assembling a top-class international field, and alongside finalists Malaysia and India, one of the other countries to make the final four was China.

During the tournament, I spoke to Yuan Hua, known more commonly as Alex, who has been working behind the scenes with the Chinese sepaktakraw federation since 2013 after previously being involved in snooker and squash in the country. Despite the fact that the team, led by coach Zhang Yong Bin who has been at helm ever since 1999, had been able to make the journey over to Europe for the French Open and also made it through to the semi-finals, things were unfortunately looking less than promising for China. Alex explained to me what the root of the problem was.

“We have had lots of difficulties since 2013, due to new central government regulations and the Ministry of Education. It is really tough to promote takraw in China now. Only students play sepaktakraw. It was a way for them to get into university, and that changed in 2013 when a new law was passed to give everyone a fair chance at getting an education. It’s a good move in principle of course, but it blocked a way for our players (who were training in sepaktakraw) to get into university.

“Many coaches work as teachers in high school but they cannot recruit players any more, as they will no longer have a chance to get to university. This team here,” he said of the squad which contested the French Open and which included the likes of Fan Xu, Xiang Zhang Ruhao, Wu Haoraw and Gao Xiangyu, “are the last ones who got to university via sepaktakraw. We can of course train amateur players at the university, but they have no background at all in the sport. We have to teach them all the basics.

“Europeans come to the sport as a hobby, out of a love for the sport,” Alex continued as he watched a German team taking on a Belgian one. “We appreciate their spirit but when it’s just a hobby, you can’t make it to the highest level. Before, we were available to cultivate players to get them to the top level. Now this has been stopped. At the national championships this year, there were only six teams. It might even be reduced further, and could possibly disappear in the future. We have the money to host the championships, but no-one to play.

“The government provides everything for Olympic sports (and traditional martial arts) – jobs, salary, injury insurance, medical care… The only benefit we used to be able to offer was university entrance, and now this is no longer possible. For IOC sports, the money is there, regardless of achievement. In Korea for example, the government provides subsidies based on achievement – that’s how they’ve improved so quickly at sepaktakraw and we’re so envious of their situation! Thailand meanwhile has a takraw culture like we have table tennis culture in China.

“Last year we had 20 players who were able to graduate from high school and get into university. This year, there are none. We’re looking for sponsors, but not having any luck at the moment.”

With China being such a populous nation, and one where there is a genuine sporting culture, we can only hope that they somehow manage to turn the corner. The upturn in tennis in the country after Li Na’s win at the French Open a few years ago shows what can happen when people are given something to cheer about. Hopefully sepaktakraw will get the support it deserves in China sooner rather than later.

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