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Home of Kung Fu Looks Toward Olympic Exposure


The community of Dengfeng in central China pushed unsuccessfully to have the ancient martial art of wushu - known as kung fu outside of China - included as a demonstration sport in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Instead, the International Olympic Committee granted permission for an international wushu competition alongside the games. Sam Beattie has more from Dengfeng, a small town in Henan Province where tens of thousands of students receive wushu training and hope the Olympics will draw more attention to their sport.

The famed Shaolin Temple perches atop a mountain range.

At the foot of the mountain lies the township of Dengfeng. It is famed as the home of the martial art kung fu, known in Chinese as wushu.

The Shaolin Temple Tagou Wushu School is one of half a dozen schools in Dengfeng that teaches wushu.

The teachers here say their school alone has 20,000 students.

On top of normal school classes, students here practice wushu four hours a day, six days a week, even during school holidays. In summer they practice outside on the school field, in winter training continues inside an unheated gymnasium.

The teachers drum into the students: practice makes perfect. Jaio Ruiping is a student at the temple.

He says for example, when he cannot get a move right the coach will ask him to repeat it again and again, until he does not have any energy left to practice, but he still has to keep on practicing.

Historians say Wushu first appeared in China around 2,500 years ago. They say it began as a set of exercises mimicking animal movements, developed to promote good health. Later, it incorporated the teachings of an Indian Buddhist named Damo, who taught the monks of Shaolin exercises based on Indian yoga as a non-violent way of protecting their temple. They say that was the beginning of Shaolin kung fu, a tradition the temple has carried on. The reputation of the monks' prowess at kung fu is now a part of Chinese folklore, and schools have set up in the area to benefit from the reputation of the region.

Boys and girls as young as six years old come to come here from across the country. They are drawn by the reputation of a school that has produced a host of national and world wushu champions. China's national wushu coach once trained here.

The students line up in training formation. Roughly 15 to 20 students in stand in a row, four rows deep. The teacher yells an instruction, and the students burst into a flurry of kicks and punches. The teenagers are lean, taut, and incredibly flexible. They kick so high in the air, their feet arc over their own heads. Over and over they repeat the moves, all of the students maintaining the same speed as their classmates.

Students say dreams of glory get them through the long days of practice.

For students like Ye Fang, wushu is her life. She lives on the school grounds, and shares a room in the dormitory with nine other students.

Except for the classes and wushu, she says, there is nothing else to do. Everyday there is just study and training, nothing else.

China pushed for wushu to be part of the Olympic Games as a demonstration sport. Olympic events such as the triathlon and taekwondo gained acceptance as regular events at the Olympics after appearing at the games as demonstration events.

The International Olympic Committee, however, declined to include the sport in the Beijing games, but has permitted an international wushu event to be held in Beijing at the same time as the Olympics. Chinese state media has jumped on this, saying there will be an Olympic showcase of the sport.

Even though the sport is not yet officially part of the Olympics, coach Cha Huimin says she hopes it one day will be.

The coach says she thinks every Chinese person is really hoping that more people from around the world will learn about wushu, to understand it or to even practice it, to spread the art of it. She calls wushu a treasure of China.

Though wushu athletes will not taste Olympic glory, the sport may still be the key to these students' futures. Many here dream of becoming martial arts stars in film and theater. If that fails they say they will try to join sporting universities to become physical education teachers or sports coaches, while others want to serve their country in the military or police services.

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