China is Dreaming and Waiting for Squash to be in the Olympics
By Alex Wan – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
Maybe just only ten years ago, squash was virtually at the start of its infancy stage in China. In 2008, the China Open first took place in Shanghai and has since been an annual affair on the PSA calendar. Despite having a major event on their schedule, the level of the game there is still far from the best in the region. However, many, including the sport’s top stars, believe it is inevitable, that it’s only a matter of time before they come up. For a badminton-crazy country, who has for many decades dominated the sport, and most recently, produced world beating tennis players, it is certainly something they are more than capable of.
Gu Jin Yue is a 23 year old student at the Shanghai Institute of Sports where she is pursuing a Masters Degree to be a professional sports trainer, a profession which goes as high as the doctorate level in the Olympic mad nation.
Her first taste of squash came at the age of 15, which was unintentional, or rather unplanned. She had been enrolled into the sports institute with badminton credentials, having played at an elite level as a young girl. However, after nine years of badminton, she was still far from making headlines in the sport and was suggested to give squash a try by her coach, which in those days, taught both badminton and squash.
She is one of China’s first batch of national squash players, all of whom like her, switched from badminton. Having been a badminton player, volleying comes very naturally for the lanky Gu. As she showed during the recent East Asian Squash Championships where China finished a very respectable fourth, give her any loose ball in the air and it will be duly punished.
“I did think that I could try playing professionally, but now, maybe not. I am graduating soon and I will need to find work. Playing squash all these years has been part of my curriculum in being in the Shanghai Sports Institute.
“Now, I’m not even sure if I will continue training like I do now. I will certainly continue to play socially, but I do not know if I will have the time to train like how I do now”, Gu said during the interview.
While it may be too late (in her opinion) for Gu to work towards playing professionally, it is a possibility that is not out of the question yet for 17 year old Yang Tianxia, who has some years to consider. Yang is also a student in the Shanghai Sports Institute, pursuing his high school certification and just like all the other players in the current national team, he is also a by-product of badminton, having switched over three years ago.
“When I first switched to squash, I didn’t know how to play. I was younger then and I found it frustrating I couldn’t play well. It was a totally new thing to me. But now, I’ve gotten used to it and like it very much”, said Yang.
One would be surprised by the level the teenager plays at given he only had three years in the sport. He has been lucky enough to have gone to the Pioneer Junior Open in the Netherlands and Japan Junior Open, supported by the government, after his seniors have paved way for some sort of support for the sport.
China’s team coach, Joe Wong Wai Chung, the former Hong Kong national player, added, “It is something like the school’s policy. In China, virtually everyone wants to be the next Lin Dan (badminton multiple world and Olympic champion). The amount of people who play badminton is virtually uncountable and there are only so many courts and coaches in the sports institute, so the natural thing for them to do is encourage some to switch over to another racket sport.”
National Team Success
China has achieved some milestones in the sport on the regional scene. At the last East Asian Games in 2013, their top women’s player Li Dongjin won the individual silver medal and had upset current world number 11 Annie Au of Hong Kong in four games in the semi-final before narrowly losing out to Au’s team mate Joey Chan in the final over five games. At the same event, the women’s team also won the bronze medal.
This remains their best result in the sport so far, but given this is the first batch of national players, it’s an achievement they can be proud of. What more, this feat is achieved without having a full time national coach.
“China does not have a national coach. I am the team coach and I only train them just before events like these. When there are no events, the players are on their own”, explained Joe Wong during the East Asian Squash Championships in Macau.
Olympics Will Change The Game In China
One of the main barriers for squash in flourishing at a much faster rate in China is the fact that it is not an Olympic sport. It is untrue that no support is given, but the game changing fact here is that, as long as squash (or any sport for the matter) is not an Olympic sport, it will be seen as a minor sport, or in direct translation from the Chinese term, “little ball (sport)”.
“The government spends lot of money on sports there. They emphasise a lot on sports in China, so there is ample money to be distributed. But if it’s not an Olympic sport, it will always be playing second fiddle to the Olympic sports,” said Wong.
Richard Dai, a Shanghai native who was refereeing at the East Asian Championships added, “We have been waiting and hoping for 20 years for squash to get into the Olympics. We are still doing that. Once it does, I guarantee you, squash will be totally different in China.”
Having said that, squash has, however, moved leaps and bounds in both the social and elite level. The national players are now able to actually compete in regional meets and the sport itself is far more popular and better known in this world’s most populated nation.
Both players, Gu Jin Yue and Yang Tian Xia, are optimistic that squash will eventually make it big in China. Both feel the success of tennis in their country gives a lot of hope.
“Just look at tennis. No one played the game at all and look how fast it has become such a popular sport. Perhaps a Li Na (Chinese ex-professional tennis player who won the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open) of squash would help!” added Gu.
Squash on the social scene
Gu added that apart from the government support and funding, there is a serious lacking of knowledge of squash in general.
“Most people in China are not really exposed to squash. Before I entered the sports institute, even I did not know that much about it. We need more people being exposed to squash, and with that, it will generate more interest from the general public to try it.”
Since Gu and Yang switched to squash, their friends has had the opportunity of being exposed to it They have taken an effort to learn about what it’s all about, but the actual ones who actually start playing remains a very small handful.
Yang also added, “Some of my friends, they play for fun. But the other problem in China is, there are very few public courts that are accessible to the public.”
This is also echoed by Richard Dai, who mentioned that in Shanghai, it takes a lot of luck and effort to get a court booking for evenings and weekends.
Given public courts that are publicly accessible are not aplenty, it remains a sport played primarily by the wealthy.
Squash is still only played in the major cities – Shanghai and Beijing primarily. But Dalian, the city which the WSF Ambassador Programme entourage recently visited, is picking up very quickly and in terms of facilities, they are well above the other cities, having multiple all-glass courts in public locations that are available for public use.
Places such as Guangzhou, Xiamen, Nanjing and some others closer to Hong Kong are also known have begun to have squash movements, according to Joe Wong.
Pictures by Monica Lan and Macau Squash Association