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Simply Oar-some! The rising popularity of Dragon Boat Racing

Updated: Jun 9

✦ Allow me to ask you a question: what would you consider the most popular sport in the world? Typically, answers to this question are likely be consistently similar: football (soccer), absolutely; golf, tennis, boxing, basketball, F1, maybe even cricket or rugby. But Dragon Boat Racing?


Yep, you read that correctly! The Dragon Boat Events website claims that the water sports-based activity originating in ancient China is “now the fastest growing water sport in the world,” while Red Eyes Dragon Boat explains how it is also “one of the fastest growing team sports, second only to soccer. Nearly 50 million people competed last year and there is a movement to make Dragon Boat Racing an Olympic sport”, while it has featured at the biennial Asian Games since 2010. From Singapore to the United States and Canada, from Europe to Japan and the Caribbean to Australia, the sport is booming and is showing no signs of letting up!


Beautifully crafted dragon boats | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK  | Brilliant Online Magazine
Beautifully crafted dragon boats

So what is Dragon Boat Racing exactly?

Well, as with anything dating back over 2,500 years, there is a hint of mystical folklore surrounding its origins. The most commonly held story is it originated in ancient China in what the Sports Planning Guide describes as “a folk ritual to placate rain gods, encourage rainfall and commemorate the summer rice planting season.” However it was not really until the 1980s that the sport entered the modern day consciousness when an extensive tourism marketing campaign in Hong Kong saw it gain a cult following. Since, it has evolved into a practice that is hugely popular with local communities and schools, mainly due to the ease of accessibility – young and old of all fitness levels can take part and enjoy not only the competitive aspect but a sense of togetherness, team work and fun! In the corporate world it has also gained in popularity as an entertaining team-building exercise that emphasises the merits of effective collaboration.


The boats themselves most resemble large canoes that are uniquely crafted to incorporate a dragon’s head and tail at the front and back of the vessel respectively. A crew can reach up to 20 people in total who sit opposite one another in pairs and who use paddles that are not attached in the manner traditional rowing themed events are, something that actually makes it far harder to power and propel. Two key crew personnel in each boat include a drummer at the front, whose constant beat helps motivate and maintain unison between the paddlers, and a helmsperson at the rear to help navigate and encourage. Races are typically sprint events over a distance of several hundred metres, with 500m the most common length.


Role of the drummer in dragon boat races | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK  | Brilliant Online Magazine
The drummer keeps the motivation and unison going!

Tremendous growth

Founded in 1991, the international governing body for the sport is the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), which now has 85 national member associations worldwide. Wikipedia explains how 30 nations incorporating 3,250 athletes competed in the 2019 World Nations Championships and 6,200 athletes from 140 clubs competed in the 2018 Club Crew World Championships. The International Rafting Federation states how there are “nearly 40 million participants in China; over 100,000 in Europe; 90,000 each in Canada and the USA and many thousands in Australia and New Zealand. With the sport now established in the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific Basin.” Red Eyes Dragon Boat explains how the “biggest dragon boat festival racing events outside of Asia are in Europe, in Malmö, Sweden and in North America, in the USA and Canada. San Francisco, Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal each host races featuring more than 180 teams with 25-person crews.”


For anything Dragon Boat Racing related Down Under look no further than the Australian Dragon Boat Federation. Events are staged in all states across the country throughout the year and continue to grow in size and popularity – for example, part of this year’s Sydney Lunar Festival, the Dragon Boats Festival took place across three days in February at Cockle Bay Wharf and saw over 3,000 paddlers involved, in addition to cultural performances, family fun activities and a host of delicious food offerings at a variety of culinary stalls!


Over in the United States Dragon Boat Racing has been popular for many years, mainly in major cities like San Francisco and New York that house sizeable Chinese populations, although it has gained considerable traction elsewhere in recent years, especially in areas near to water. The city of Tacoma in Washington state recently invested in regenerating its waterfront area which has seen an explosion in numbers participating in water based sports like Dragon Boat Racing. “Here in the Northwest, we’ve seen tremendous growth over the past 18 years,” said Mike Gehrke, of the Tacoma Dragon Boat Association.


Gain speed when everyone works as one | Brilliant Online Australia Singapore UK | Brilliant Online Magazine
Gain speed when everyone works as one

Environmentally friendly

Similar growth is being witnessed north of the border in Canada. Aaron Soroka, chief operating officer at Toronto-based GWN Events, explained to the Sports Planning Guide: “When I started in 2006, we ran about half the (dragon boat) events in North America, roughly 40 events. Now, it’s everywhere. I would say in terms of the number of dragon boat festivals, there’s probably a 10 percent growth per year. It’s a testament to its popularity. (The festivals) put a renewed focus on cities’ waterfronts. Whether it’s a local lake or park, no other event brings people to the waterfront more than dragon boating. Our Toronto event attracts 5,000 paddlers and 15,000 spectators in two days.” In the southern climes of the Bahamas, where warm temperatures, clear skies and clear Atlantic Ocean waters make for a perfect setting, the sport is also booming, as the 2nd Annual Bahamas Dragon Boat Festival last September is testimony to.


Aside from the obvious health benefits and united community spirit Dragon Boat Racing instills, there is an additional major plus. “It’s also clean and it’s environmentally friendly,” Soroka explains. “We’ve always been cognizant of sports tourism driving heads to beds. We are always trying to leave a positive economic and social impact in the communities that we are operating.” In the current climate this is something that undoubtedly is playing a part in the sport’s growing popularity.


A further benefit is the altruistic aspect. “Almost every dragon boat festival has a charitable component,” Soroka said. “We just signed a deal with Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. In Chicago, we work with an organization that supports getting wounded war veterans active. A portion of the proceeds from registration fees goes back to charities. There are events that raise a few hundred bucks and some that raise a quarter million dollars annually. It’s different than a walking or running event. As fantastic as those both are, I think people want something different. Charities are looking for a new catch.”


As if we needed any further proof as to the burgeoning popularity of the ancient sport, even the Royals have chanced their hands at it and given it their seal of approval! On a trip to Prince Edward Island in Canada in 2011, Prince William and Kate Middleton raced against one another in a good-hearted yet competitive encounter, with Wills eventually coming out on top. 


Watch Prince William boat race against Kate!


Remember to check out our Nonya Dumpling Recipe as part of the Dragon Boat Festival celebrations!


Rice dumplings are part of the dragon boat festival celebrations | Brilliant Magazine

 

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