China – a new opportunity for Orienteering

The Orienteering Association of China became a member of the International Orienteering Federation in the summer of 1992. During 2008-2012, China had several high-level athletes and the Chinese orienteers reached their top results ever at the major IOF events: 7th place in the women’s Relay at WOC 2008, and Shuangyan Hao’s 10th place in the women’s Sprint race at WOC 2009. But since then, most of the runners retired and China lost pace in their development, at least at the high level.

Today nearly 500 000 people from more than 400 schools, clubs, and sports companies do orienteering, and almost 100 large orienteering events, with from a few hundred to several thousand participants, are held annually in China.

Although orienteering is more and more popular in China, especially among the younger generations, orienteering is facing similar problems as in other developing orienteering countries. As orienteering is not an Olympic sport, and not even a listed sport by the Olympic Council of Asia, it is difficult to get the attention and the substantial financial support from the government. Another problem is that most of the athletes and the coaches have lower levels of orienteering skill and lack high-level event experience.

Development plan for China

At the end of 2017, International Orienteering Federation President Leho Haldna and CEO Tom Hollowell visited China twice to learn about the status of orienteering there and to secure the organization of the final round of the Orienteering World Cup in 2019.

Tom Hollowell says “We were very happy to get this opportunity to visit China last autumn. Our primary goal was to reach an agreement for the first ever World Cup event in China in the 2019 season. But we also agreed to make a development plan for orienteering in China. We’ve talked about different ways of raising the level of their elite athletes, bringing more major orienteering events to China and promoting orienteering as a sport for all. So, there are 3 parts of this long-term plan which we are continuing to  develop.”

China is the most populated country in the world and it is of interest to promote orienteering there. Another reason for this country’s importance to orienteering is that China is a driving sports nation in Asia. So, China’s development should help to develop orienteering in the rest of Asia.

One of the key elements of the development plan is helping the Chinese elite orienteers to improve their orienteering skills. Though they are often very good runners, their orienteering and map reading techniques need to be improved significantly. The new generation of Chinese orienteers don’t have much experience of competing against the world-class athletes, and it takes years to build the skills needed to compete at the highest level. A year ago, a number of young Chinese athletes took part in the WOC, JWOC and other international events, and, more importantly, started to train with European clubs before the Major Events, in order to improve their skills.

Focusing only on the elite athletes training is not enough to build a strong basis for a long-term growth. A coaching program has to be established and the coaching of coaches needs to be carried out.

Bringing more Major Events to China should be another tool to let their orienteers regularly compete against the world’s top athletes. Although there is a growing interest in organizing WRE-level events held in China, assistance is needed to bring these to a world-class level, to enable China to organise IOF Major Events. Clinics and seminars for potential event organisers, advisers and mappers are planned for 2018. And there are things that IOF Major Events could benefit from in learning from China as well. For example, ceremonies in China are really top level and could set an example to many event organisers.

Orienteering as a sport for all

Another piece of the development plan is promoting orienteering as a sport for all and a lifetime activity with very strong sustainability values.

Even at the political level there are some positive signs for orienteering. A new state program was introduced at the 19th Party Congress last autumn that shows intentions to spread sports for all, in which everyone can participate. And orienteering is identified as one such sport.

“During our first visit, we were invited to the Chinese Olympic Committee and it was clear during that meeting, that they see orienteering as a very good sport for China as a society, not just as an elite sport. When we talk about sports for all, China is underdeveloped. We know that orienteering can provide positive benefits and develop something new in China. It’s very important for us to use this window of opportunity now that we have had a very positive reception from the Chinese Olympic Committee and the Sports Authorities”, says Tom Hollowell, IOF CEO.

World Orienteering Day is a very good tool for spreading orienteering in the most positive way to a wide audience. It was also very interesting to see how orienteering events in China were combined with  cultural activities. In other parts of the world, you can occasionally experience local culture, arts and history at an orienteering event, and this is not uncommon in China. For example the Historical Road Orienteering Championship 2017 in Guangdong province was a great example of that.

A variety of terrains

As a huge country, China can offer all types of terrain for both urban and forest orienteering. In South and South East China, forests are usually very thick, but there are many historical villages and great urban terrains for sprint racing. But in the north of China, there many good forest terrains.

“It is really hard to describe the typical Chinese terrain. As you know, China has a great long history and a wide territory. There are so many diverse terrains for the orienteering: from the ancient villages and the modern parks in the cities, to bamboo or fruit forests terrain. There couldn’t be a better way to learn about China than through orienteering”, Zhang Guangshuo from the Orienteering Association of China says.

Banana plantations, bamboo forests, orange groves, ancient villages with 1000 year old buildings. Sounds unusual. Even if we’d try to find anything similar in South Europe, the Chinese terrains would definitely be something exceptional.


World Cup 2019 and future Major Events

In December 2017, the Orienteering Association of China and the International Orienteering Federation reached an agreement to organise the final round of the IOF Orienteering World Cup in 2019.

It will be not only the first ever Orienteering World Cup round in China but also the first IOF Major Event with global participation in the country. Only regional championships and world ranking events have been held previously in China.

The World Cup Final will be held at the end of October 2019 in and around Guangzhou city and the Guangdong Province.

Zhang Guangshuo, OAC: “That was great news, both for the IOF and for the Chinese orienteering community. It will be the first time that China hosts an international orienteering event at the highest level. The gap between Chinese and European high-level runners is obvious. Now our athletes will have the opportunity to learn from the top European orienteers and improve their skills, so the gap will be narrowing down. We believe that this will be a unique and unforgettable orienteering experience for all athletes. We sincerely welcome orienteers from all over the World to China”.

And with the growth of orienteering in China, it will be no surprise to see more Major Events there in the future. We can expect Chinese bids for JWOC, WOC and maybe Ski Orienteering events in the future.

We’ve asked Tim Robertson (New Zealand) to share his impressions about orienteering events in China

Tim, You’ve been to China twice this autumn/winter. In which events have you participated and what type of races were they?

In October, I was racing for the second time in the “Beijing-O-Week” – it’s a competition that consists of one middle distance and three or four sprints.

These aren’t traditional forest middle distances or city sprints. They take place in the huge and beautiful parks that surround Beijing. There are always some surprises and therefore you have to be very flexible with your orienteering.

In December, I was in Guangzhou competing in the Historical Road Orienteering Championships. Here we raced again one middle and three sprints.

The difference here was that we only raced once in a “park” terrain. The middle was a mixture of paths and “jungle”, one of the sprints I would describe as a Chinese Venice and the other was partly in a Banana forest and partly in very technical old town ruins.

How would you evaluate these events?

The atmosphere surrounding the competitions in China is incredible. Huge TV screens, drones overhead, banners everywhere and photographers taking nonstop pictures is just the “normal” at these events.

Both years in Beijing we have been guests at a press conference inside the water cube (Olympic swimming venue) with huge posters of all competition athletes on display and the sport channel of China filming.

In Guangzhou, there was an opening ceremony before every competition with performances from local dancers, singers, musicians and speeches promoting orienteering to the special guests. If you turned on the TV in the evening you could watch the previous race on the news.

Updates to competition maps and courses have to be done quite last minute due to a number of reasons such as the never-ending changes in the terrain. A whole new building can just be put up overnight!

Jaroslav Kacmarcik and his team do an amazing job of making sure the races are at a high enough quality and although there have been some surprises along the way the competitions are fair and definitely comparable with the level in Europe.

Sometimes we have competed on maps drawn with ISSOM and others produced by Chinese mapmakers not to ISSOM. Although it can sometimes be unclear what is passable/not the runners were always briefed well by Jaroslav before the race to ensure a level playing field.

How would you describe terrains used for sprint races in China?

The terrains China have to offer are great. There is a huge variety and I believe with some of these unique terrains that competitions can become more level with no team having a “home town advantage” or being able to study too much about the competition before it begins (Google maps in China doesn’t provide so much information!).

The competitions in Guangzhou are definitely some of the best sprint maps I have competed on. Running through banana leaves at full speed and then coming into a maze of abandoned buildings with no people was just an orienteering dream.

The maps take some getting used to and you need to be very spontaneous with your technique. It’s always good to expect the unexpected. And looking at the map compared to actually being in the terrain are two completely different things. The architecture and layout of the parks are nothing like what I have ever experienced, it took me some time to get a feel for the maps and how to run in the terrain.

China will organise the World Cup Final in 2019. It’s almost 2 years ahead, but what are your expectations for this event?

Since competing in China for the first time in 2016 I have been waiting for this news. I am excited about the expansion of orienteering outside of this European ring and I think it will be a great new experience for the orienteers who get the chance to compete here.

Although China is not even halfway to New Zealand, I get the feeling already that racing in China will feel like a “home” World Cup for me.

Seeing what the organisers are doing already at these competitions I expect the World Cup to be a massive event. I can recommend to those athletes who have not yet had a taste of orienteering in China to consider competing next year in one of these events.