September 27, 2010

In Beijing, the first Sportaccord World Combat Games

Simply the best combat sport event the world has ever seen, a real Olympiad for the nine disciplines still not included. The Italian kickboxers were exceptional, second in the medal standings with 5 golds and 1 silver. WAKO finds a great partner in China.

by Ennio Falsoni

I was an easy prophet. In fact, I had written an article before leaving for Beijing entitled “ It looks like the Olympics ” . In other words, after having cooperated in the founding of this event (it stemmed from an idea within GAISF about four years ago) together with my colleagues from the various international federations involved, after having gone to Beijing in 2007 to visit the venues that would host the biggest Olympics in history the following year, and after watching and admiring them on television, I was fully expecting the City of Beijing, the real sponsor of this initiative, to do a great job.

And that’s how it was.

The fact that the matches of these first World Combat Games were held in the same Olympic venues to which the organizers convened thousands of supporters, and that all the matches were shown live on a dedicated Chinese TV channel, would do the rest.

I had no doubts &rdash the athletes who would take part in the first edition of these Games would enjoy an incredible occasion to breathe the air and the atmosphere of the Olympics.

Well, this time I hit the nail on the head. It was “ totally awesome ” , as today’s young people would say.

From the moment any delegation arrived in Beijing, it found instructions and publicity regarding the Combat Games everywhere. By simply following the signs at the airport you would find yourself at the exit with the reception tables of the Sportaccord Games full of young university students eager to help you locate the buses waiting to take you to the Friendship Hotel, which was used for those with participant credentials. For the federation directors, chauffeur-driven-cars were waiting. From the airport to the various hotels, the enormous boulevards and streets were lined with the flags of the Combat Games. One got the impression that the city itself was experiencing the event. A positive outcome for the Games was already evident from the opening ceremony the evening of August 28. I arrived at 2 pm that same day and had exactly enough time to get to my hotel, rush to the Games reception banquet offered by the Mayor of Beijing at 5:30, and then be at the stadium with my colleagues two hours later.

The National Indoor Stadium was packed and the ceremony, which lasted less than2 hours, was full of charm and atmosphere for its choreography, light show and optical effects. Wearing brightly colored costumes, hundreds of performers filled 6 hinged combat squares relating to 6 combat disciplines. The dancers, gymnasts, and acrobats, members of the Chinese National Circus, were incredibly good. Equally good was the band of youngsters who played modern and classical music. Among the guests of honor, besides the “ ambassadors ” that each international federation brought (WAKO chose Don “ The Dragon ” Wilson who stayed in Beijing for the entire duration of the Games), there was a final surprise which saw, at center stage as a singer, Jackie Chan, one of the most famous and best liked action movie stars in the world.

Given all of this, I couldn’t have been wrong &rdash the World Combat Games were off to a good start! The next day, right on schedule, the competition started in the various disciplines. The 13 combat sports were organized over 2 or 3 days of matches, with the starts staggered over the three venues so that one sport would have to wait for another to finish its matches.

The first to start were Ju Jitsu, Sumo and Taekwondo, then Karate, Wrestling, Kendo, Judo, Wushu, Aikido, Muay Thai, Boxing, Sambo and finally Kickboxing which closed the Games. The disciplines that were similar, or required the same type of structure, shared a venue. Therefore, Boxing, Muay Thai and Kickboxing were all held at the National Olympic Center. Frankly, it is by far the best sports structure I have ever seen, a true Olympic structure including its furnishings &rdash large, spacious, very clean…perfect!

I went to see a lot of matches, among them Ju Jitsu, Karate, Boxing and Muay Thai. I didn’t see anything I didn’t already know about, obviously, but I must say that our Kickboxing need not envy the other disciplines. I dare say regarding spectacular content, we are second to none, perhaps because for these Sportaccord World Combat Games WAKO brought its best athletes in the three disciplines we had chosen for the occasion. Other sports, for various reasons (like conflicts with their own championships) may not have been able to bring their best.

Of the 7 disciplines that now make up WAKO activity, to Beijing we brought Semi Contact and Full Contact (the two with which we started activity in the 1970s) plus Low-Kick, one of the most popular ring specialties within WAKO. Considering that the Organizing Committee would cover all the travel and lodging expenses for 120 persons from each international federation, at least 80 of them had to be athletes. Since 7 weight categories are generally used (63, 69, 74, 79, 84kg for men and 55, 60kg for women) it was clear that to respect these parameters WAKO could take 4 athletes in each weight category for a total of 84 combatants. Then there were to be 28 coaches, at least one from each of the nations represented, bringing the total to 112 persons. The remaining 8 were some WAKO directors, a secretary, a computer and software specialist for the matches and the heads of the international referee commission. All other coaches and all referees necessary to carry out the matches went to Beijing at the expense of their respective national federations. This meant that the national federations had heavy added expenses to bear for this event. But it was worth it.

In order to guarantee an adequate level of excellence that such an event entails, WAKO had established that the two World Championships in 2009, held in Villach, Austria and Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy, would function as qualification tests for Beijing. Only the first four finishers in the chosen categories would qualify.

The Italians did very well in those World Championships and we were among the member nations that managed to place the largest number of athletes, eight, of which 6 in semi contact and two in low-kick. Unfortunately, no Italian was able to win a ticket to Beijing in full contact.

Andrea Lucchese (63kg), Domenico De Marco (69kg), Gregorio Di Leo (74kg) and Stella Neri (79kg) among the men and Luisa Gullotti (55kg) and Gloria De Bei (60kg) among the women were the heroes in semi contact. In low-kick again two women stood out: Maria Vittoria Colonna (56kg) and Barbara Plazzoli (60kg).

What we saw in Beijing was perhaps the best performance by our Italian team that I have ever seen. They were fantastically well prepared by coaches Gianfranco Rizzi and Emanuele Bozzolani who told me they had worked very hard with them during summer vacation, at the expense of spending time with their families.

We all know the results by now. This splendid group cleaned house in semi contact, winning 5 gold medals &rdash previously considered an unobtainable goal &rdash handing a resounding defeat on their longtime rivals in this specialty, the Hungarians of Master Kiraly. Veres Richard, Tamas Imre, Gambos Laszlo and Moradi Zsolt had become a real nemesis in recent years for our side, who, after ten years of supremacy were forced to bow down to the Hungarians freshness during the last 3 years, surrendering the top spot on the world stage. But Beijing proved to be “ special ” for our youngsters. Fast, full of fantasy and a desire to win, in great physical condition and possessing splendid technique, it was a pleasure to watch them at work and cheer their victories.

Certainly, there were also those who lost, like Stella Neri or Maria Vittoria Colonna. However, they clearly gave it everything they had and if they lost it was only because they were up against a stronger opponent. And this must be accepted with good sportsmanship, as it should always be.

Also Barbara Plazzoli, a silver medal winner coached by Massimo Rizzoli and Riccardo Bergamini, was very disappointed in her result. She was crestfallen, sad, almost in tears on the awards podium. But what the hell &rdash how can one be sad after finishing second in such a high-level tournament at the venerable age of 34 years? Barbara is no longer young. She has had a dazzling career and it’s only natural that she has to step aside sooner or later to make way for the on-coming generation. She faced two twenty-year-olds who were taller and slimmer than her (which is a problem in itself). She narrowly defeated the Polish girl in the semifinals, but Fatima Bikova, who had already defeated her in last year’s world championship finals, scored a repeat victory. Barbara lost the first two rounds and came back well in the third, but it wasn’t enough. Hats off to her.

Excuse me if I went on too long talking about the Italian athletes, but they were so good in dominating their specialty that I couldn’t help myself.

The fact is that I admired many other athletes as well. Having brought to China the world’s best four athletes in full contact and low-kick made all the matches highly spectacular and well balanced, so much so that many matches ended in a photo finish, as they say. The new Easy-Scoring System is crazy. If you follow the progress of matches watching only the computer screen, you see the little lines moving from one part or the other at the speed of light, indicating lead changes and sudden reactions. You think a certain athlete is sure to win because he is ahead by a point or two, and then in the last 20 seconds he is struck by three blows and the match goes the other way. Crazy, but true. This is what happened to two Chinese fighters who, though gaining their first experience, were very good and in possession of good technique.

As I predicted, the Russian athletes were the best, but there’s nothing new about that. The Norwegians were also good. Coming from a small country, they had excellent athletes, like real Viking warriors. Andreas Lodrup, Dale Erin, Christian Kvatningen, Karl Martin Richardsenand above all Sorlje Tonie, the winner in 56 Kg, were formidable, even in defeat.

In full contact, the athlete who impressed me the most was Russia’s Yusup Magamekbekov in the 75 Kg category. He had lost to Lodrup at Lignano the year before, but against the same Lodrup in Beijing, the lanky Yusup was incredible for his timing, continuity, dodging and hand and leg combinations. He is quite exceptional.

In my opinion, another first-class athlete is France’s Karim Ghajji (75 Kg low-kick category) who dominated Turkey’s Kir Alpayin the finals. Karim is a steamroller &rdash strong, tough and technical at the same time. I could continue this list at length, but it would become too long because, frankly, I was impressed with everyone. All of them were very well prepared and wanted to win at this historic event. They all gave it everything they had, so all I can do is give a sincere and affectionate “ bravo ” all around.

However, my satisfaction with this historic edition of the World Combat Games doesn’t end here. Beijing is the city that hosted the most extraordinary Olympiad and it’s the city that held the baptism of the Sportaccord World Combat Games, but it is also the city that saw the birth of cooperation &rdash it’s almost incredible to say it&rdash between different combat martial arts. In fact, the Chinese Wushu Association, headed by its president Gao Xiaojun, has become the direct representative of WAKO in China.

The agreement was signed the day before the beginning of the tournament. The signing comes after 5 years of gestation, from when I hosted for the first time a Chinese delegation at the 2005 Belgrade World Championships and at another Championship last year in Lignano. The Chinese Wushu Association is a state apparatus run directly under the Ministry of Sports and the government. Wushu is a traditional part of Chinese culture which explains why it boasts so many followers, with 60 million practitioners in China alone. Fortunately for us, Wushu has a sports discipline called Sanda (or Sanshu) which includes, besides leg holds and throws, also punches and kicks. It seemed logical to us that to be successful in China, it would be better if the Chinese didn’t feel like “ competitors ” , but rather like partners wanting to offer their best athletes an additional competition opportunity. Therefore, I am pleased that the Chinese, to whom we offered six “ wild card ” entry spots in full contact (bringing the total number to 90) have understood our intentions and have agreed to help us develop our discipline in China, where it will be controlled by them. For the record, the Chinese athletes all lost in the first round, but I must honestly say that some of them were very good. Obviously they lost due to their lack of experience competing at this level. They all started out very well, with powerful and fast technique, both kicking and punching, but they started running out of gas about half way through the second round and were completely exhausted in the third round. With coaching and adequate conditioning I am sure that in the future the presence of Chinese athletes will be felt in kickboxing. We have already made ourselves available for specific training sessions.

Now more than ever China appears to be the cradle of many things besides the martial arts and consequently their history is in the making here.

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