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Gray 'warriors' having a ball
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With his legs spread apart, 82-year-old Wang Fuhai grips a club, aims at a small white ball and gives it a quick hit. He watches as the ball rolls forward to hit another ball which in turn passes through a small square metal gate 2 meters away.

"Goal!" he cheers. Not bad for a beginner.

The game is called men qiu - or gateball - and it is now one of the most popular sports played by elderly Shanghai people. So far about 1,000 participate in the game professionally while many more laymen like Wang are learning.

And judging by the smile on his face, Wang is quite happy with his progress.

Gateball has its origins in the game of croquet which was invented in France in the 13th century. It was created in post World War II in the little Japanese town of Memuro in Hokkaido by Eiji Suzuki who thought it would be a good, cheap activity for poor children.

But the sport turned out to be a great hit with elderly people instead as it requires only minimal physical strength but offers gentle exercise for the body and mind.

These days more than 10 million people play in about 30 countries and regions around the world.

"There are few outdoor games for elderly people due to their physical strength limitations," says Tang Weiping, director of the Activity Office of the Shanghai Retired Cadres' Activity Center.

"Previously tai chi and swinging arms may have been the only choices for many, but gateball makes physical exercise much more fun. Many elderly people fell in love with it as soon as they played with friends."

According to Tang, gateball attracted a lot of new fans in Shanghai in the last 20 years. There are about 300 elderly gateball teams in Shanghai today, involving more than 1,000 members all together and the number is growing.

Tang Zhongyi, 76, is a big fan of the game. He says a visit by the Nagasaki Gateball Council from Japan in 1983 introduced him to the sport, and it was also the first time gateball had been seen in China.

"I was a snooker fan at the time and was invited to a seminar on the introduction of gateball," says Tang. "The very brief 30-minute introduction aroused my interest unexpectedly. I was good at snooker and I believed that managing a similar game would not be hard for me."

The seven elderly people who went to the seminar with Tang quickly set up their own team, but being a totally new game to China, getting equipment was a problem.

So Tang and his group had a carpenter friend make some clubs and balls according to their description - a 1-meter-long stick with a hammer-like head.

With the wooden clubs and balls, they started to practice on the basketball court in Luwan Stadium. Japanese gateball players started coming to visit on a monthly basis and playing friendly matches with the Chinese.

"They only won in the first month," says Tang. "We caught them in the second month and surpassed them in the third. It is not all about diligent practice and strategy-making, it did improve our basic hitting skills."

As per the original invention of the game, the Japanese players insisted on using a traditional golf pose where they stood beside the ball when playing a shot.

But Tang says it is difficult to aim accurately in this position so the Chinese opted to stand with one foot each side of the ball and hit from the front. He says it proved most successful.

"Our Japanese friends didn't agree with our change at first. They insisted that it was violating the rules. They called it 'an ugly pose' although they could not deny it did improve accuracy," says Tang.

Later, according to Tang, the Japanese players accepted the new pose and adopted it as well. They even gave Tang his own club and gloves as a gift after a match in the third month to show their respect for his skill and friendliness.

After landing in Shanghai in 1983, gateball quickly became popular around China. Elderly people fell in love with the sport and immersed themselves in the fun and strategy.

They found themselves busy again, attending seminars and competitions around the country.

Lu Bo, 80, leader of the Shanghai Veteran Cadre Gateball Team for almost 20 years, is always busy arranging schedules for his team. Generally there are about eight big competitions each year and three to five smaller events each month.

Tang says the Shanghai team was called the "Ever Triumphant Army" in the first few years, but now many other teams are catching up.

Gateball remains very popular in Shanghai. Some elderly people even hold invitational games as their birthday party.

Team leader Lu still practices for four hours a day as long as it does not rain. "I have many health problems, but as long as I stand on the court, I feel like all of those ailments are gone. I am like a warrior on the battlefield, thinking about nothing but defeating my opponents," says the veteran.

Though winning adds fun to the game, Lu insists that the spirit of sports is more important. "Yi Qiu Hui You" (meeting friends out of the game) is one of the doctrines of his team.

"After all, it is a game," says Lu. "It is not worth being upset, let alone hurting friendships."

About the game

Gateball is like a mixture of golf and snooker, although the club used is very similar to that used in croquet.

Unlike golf, a big space is not required. Instead a square area which is 15 to 20 square meters or 20 to 25 square meters is enough.

The field has three small gates and a terminal post on the ground. Two teams with five members each hit balls in turn. There are 10 balls altogether.

Players score when they hit the ball through the gates.

(Shanghai Daily July 1, 2008)

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