It started out as a frantic search for an ancient Chinese poet who committed suicide by plunging into a river. About 2,300 years later, dragon boat racing is a full-fledged international sport making its debut as a medal event at the fourth East Asian Games in Macau.
A dragon boat is a narrow vessel similar to a rowing boat, but it's decorated with some Oriental flair. At the East Asian Games, the racing craft are styled with green dragon heads featuring whiskers, golden scales and brown horns, as well as a tail.
The technique is similar to canoeing -- the paddlers plunge their paddles downwards, as opposed to horizontally as in the case of rowing.
Like rowing, speed hinges on uniformity of strokes. But dragon boat racing relies mainly on upper body strength while rowing is driven by the lower body, Taiwan's men's coach Liu Te-chih explained on the sidelines of the first day of competition yesterday.
Explosiveness is key. In Macau, athletes are competing over 250m and 500m courses.
Macau competitor Jose Gonzun, a personal fitness trainer, said the paddling is highly intense. "Suddenly, your heart rate, boom!" said Gonzun, a Pampanga, Philippines native who moved to Macau.
The roots of dragon boat racing are in ancient China. When disillusioned poet Qu Yuan jumped into a river, people raced to the site in boats to search for him. They made loud sounds to scare away fish and dropped rice dumplings into the water to lure them away from Qu's body. Now the Chinese mark the anniversary of Qu's death by racing dragon boats and eating dumplings.
And there's another legacy dating back to the original event, making dragon boat racing one of the only sports with a built-in cheerleader.
Each team includes a drummer, although now the drummer's role is to keep the crew in rhythm, not startle fish.
The sport of dragon boat racing has gone global. The International Dragon Boat Federation, or IDBF, was founded in 1991 and hosts world championships on odd-numbered years and club world championships on even years.
The world championships took place in Berlin, Germany in August and will be next held in 2007 in Sydney, Australia.
Canada and Russia are among the top men's teams, and there are more paddlers in Europe than in Asia, according to Li Jie, head of the Chinese dragon boat racing federation.
The sport has gone high tech too, with carbon fiber paddles, which are better for stabilizing the boat, replacing wooden ones, Taiwanese coach Liu said.
Still, dragon boat racing has an amateur flavor. While some teams draw from canoe athletes, China's East Asian Games team comprises mainly farmers and manual workers. Li said dragon boat racing is popular in China's rural areas.
On the Net:
International Dragon Boat Federation: www.idbf.org