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Dragon Races

It was in the age of Confucius and the famous military strategist Sun Tzu that a revered patriotic Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, took his own life. In a symbolic gesture against the political corruption and betrayals of the time, he waded into a river, weighed down by a large rock, and let himself be drowned. Devoted villagers and fishermen raced their boats into the current, beating drums to keep the fish away as they tried to rescue Yuan. Though the efforts failed, the dramatic moment survives nearly 2,300 years later in the sport of dragon boating. This month, Toronto is the place where the dragon-boating world focuses its attention, as the sport and all its regalia arrive for the International Dragon Boat Federation’s Club Crew World Championship (CCWC).

As colourful as the event’s cultural touches are, and though the competitors are amateurs with day jobs, it would be a mistake to think of the sport as quaint or the athletes as dabblers. Mike Scarola, for example, races for the Toronto-based Sony G & G Dragons. (He has also raced with the Dragon Beasts, a club from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.) He is one of three Olympians on his crew (Scarola competed in Athens last year, in the two-man 1,000-metre canoe event), along with another half-dozen or so former national team members from various paddling disciplines. “I started dragon boat racing in 1995 as a complement to my regular racing schedule,” he says. He outlines the training and commitment required: a group training session and five solo workouts per week in advance of competition, ramping up to a training camp prior to the race, when his crew will cover 500 metres in well under two minutes. Preparation is intense, both physically and mentally, and the crews are here to win.

“These are exciting competitions with teams from around the world,” says Sharifa Khan, the event chair. “They’re very fierce competitions.” To make sure things stay on the up-and-up, random drug testing is performed on athletes for the same slate of illegal performance enhancers for which the Olympic Games tests.FREE AND FUN
With an international slate of participants—2,400 athletes representing clubs from 16 countries—and hard-core athletes, the CCWC is a sporting event that keeps the spectators foremost in mind. For starters, it’s free! All the races and a full roster of internationally themed entertainment are open to the public with no admission charge. Half a million people are expected to attend the various events. An opening ceremony at Nathan Phillips Square (at the corner of Queen and Bay streets) will welcome participants on August 10 at 7:30 p.m., plus the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto will operate a cultural village at the race site.

The races themselves are, of course, the cornerstone of the festivities. To host an event of this magnitude, organizers banded together with three levels of government to create the Western Beaches Watercourse, a brand new $23-million race facility just west of downtown Toronto. Opened in June, it offers improved sightlines for spectators, better facilities for racers, and a six-lane waterway for races up to 2,000 metres.

For more information, visit www.2006ccwc.com.

The Western Beaches Watercourse runs along the Lake Ontario shoreline just west of Ontario Place.

By TTC: Take the 509 streetcar from Union Station, the 511 streetcar from Bathurst subway station, or the 22 bus from Dufferin subway. All three end at Exhibition Place, which is just north and west of the watercourse. Call 416-393-INFO for bus and streetcar information.

By GO Train:From Union Station, take the Lakeshore West GO train one stop west to Exhibition station. Note that service times are variable. Visit www.gotransit.com or call 416-869-3200 for GO Train info.
Get the full scoop on the Rogers Chinese Lantern Festival in Illuminating Event.

Learn more about the Chinatown Festival, happening August 12 and 13 at Chinatown Celebrates.—Robert Maurin

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