Twirling spears, swords and clubs at frightening speeds, the brightly clad fighters performing backflips and flying kicks could be mistaken for extras in a kung fu movie being shot in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.
Wushu — a broad term for the martial arts disciplines from China — is still often called kung fu and pits fighters against one another in hand-to-hand combat or intricate acrobatics focusing on flair and weapon work.
Competitors dressed in elaborate costumes scream as they soar through the air brandishing staffs and blades, landing on one foot and holding a complex pose before launching into a dizzying spin. Others, armed with a sword in each hand, fend off attackers bearing spears in a choreographed routine marked on technique and accuracy.
The moves are similar to the impressive fighting techniques popularised in kung fu films of the 1980s and 90s, a genre that inspired a generation of today’s wushu champions to master the demanding routines.
“I was interested in how they move, how they fly, how they use different weapons,” Russian wushu athlete Daria Tarassova said of the kung fu superstars she watched in films as a teenager.
“I wanted to do those beautiful movements,” she told AFP in Jakarta between her events
-Kung fu effect –
The sport has come a long way since a rising martial artist named Jet Li — years before he found fame in Hollywood — demonstrated wushu on the White House lawn for former president Richard Nixon.
Wushu has transformed from a centuries-old, exclusively Chinese combat discipline into a professional sport with a world federation and global participation.
Li remains a major drawcard as wushu’s official global ambassador — he was mobbed during a brief appearance in Jakarta.
But recent blockbuster movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “The Last Airbender” have driven remarkable growth outside Asia, particularly in Europe and the Americas where younger fighters are signing up to learn the ancient ways.
“I’m starting to see younger athletes coming in who have seen it in the movies,” Mario Martinez, US national team coach and long-time wushu fighter, told AFP, adding the sport had grown “immensely” in the US recently.
“I think wushu is starting to have a worldwide presence.”
This year’s world championships, which ran from November 13 to 18, featured a record number of around 600 athletes, with thousands tuning in worldwide to watch the drama live online, a first for wushu as it tries to take the sport global and attract new fans.
Many of those rising to the medal dais — including Tarassova and compatriot Vladimir Maximov, who won two golds — hail from emerging wushu nations, including some from outside Asia, which has traditionally dominated the sport.
Wushu features several disciplines. Fighters in “sanda” — a type of kick boxing which allows wrestling and throwing — spar on a raised mat. By contrast, “taolu” more closely resembles gymnastics with weapons, where traditional routines based on attack and defence techniques are performed individually and in teams.
– Fighting for Olympic glory –
Now wushu is hoping to go a step further by following other martial arts, like Japan’s judo and Korea’s taekwondo, by becoming an Olympic sport.
The International Wushu Federation’s efforts suffered a setback when wushu was dropped from a shortlist of sports being considered for the Tokyo 2020 Games, but the organisation has not been put off and is confident of inclusion in 2024.
“We were disappointed but we were not too surprised,” federation executive vice president Anthony Goh told AFP.
Extra money is a particular attraction of gaining Olympic status, with federations outside major wushu hubs in Asia — and emerging powerhouses like Russia and Iran — struggling due to limited sponsorship.
Martinez said many of the US athletes on his squad worked full time to fund their travel for wushu tournaments abroad and still managed to train four hours per day.
“It’s a huge, huge sacrifice for them,” he said.
But he was confident wushu was destined to be an Olympic sport: “It has fighting, it has weapons, it has all the fast-moving action of martial arts condensed into one.”