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Coming to grips with Shanghai's best

China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-17 09:52
Two competitors square off at the recent 7th Shanghai Arm Wrestling Open. The sport is becoming increasingly popular in China, with fan associations established in over 100 cities, while internationally it is gaining legitimacy with a bid to join the Paralympics. AFP

If you thought arm wrestling was merely booze-fueled barroom bravado, it's time to think again...

SHANGHAI-Muscles bulging and veins popping, two Chinese arm wrestlers lock eyes and then their hands, until the referee barks "Go!"

Already considered a serious sport in many parts of the world, arm wrestling has generally been viewed in China as a testosterone showdown between inebriated bar patrons.

But it is gaining an arm hold with fan associations in more than 100 Chinese cities, said Ye Ming, founder of Shanghai Arm Wrestling.

More than 100 competitors took part in the recent 7th Shanghai Arm Wrestling Open, which calls itself the first in China staged under the auspices of the Professional Armwrestling League's international ranking system.

"Arm wrestling is a way to shake hands and communicate face-to-face," said Ye, a top-ranked left-hander.

And while China lags behind the US, Japan and Europe, it is the fastest-growing country in terms of participation, he said.

The bespectacled 37-year-old Ye is an unlikely champion. By day he works at a Shanghai library restoring ancient books, meticulously piecing together crumbling centuries-old manuscripts.

And while he enjoyed arm wrestling as a child, he only came to the sport as an adult after falling critically ill.

Eight years ago he developed viral encephalitis-an inflammation of the brain-and slipped into a coma for two days. Doctors warned he might not survive.

After making a remarkable recovery he was unable to take on the exertion of more intensive sports, but discovered arm-wrestling provided a full body workout that he could manage.

With proper technique and mental strength, "a skinny guy can defeat a muscular guy", said Ye.

"At first, people are attracted by the grueling and eye-catching moments. That gets them in the door, but once they look deeper, it's the intricacy of the sport and the inclusiveness of the community that keep them there," he said.

Since its founding in 2012, Shanghai Arm Wrestling has grown from four participants to more than 500, ranging in age from 17 to 63.

The membership includes four women.

Members gather weekly to work on their technique, using specially designed tables with elbow pads and a metal bar fixed to each side for competitors to grip with their free hand.

Li Rongyi's right leg was partially disabled by childhood polio, but he has wrestled competitively for seven years.

"I can wrestle as long as I have hands. I feel equal to others" said the English teacher, who has also been certified as an international arm wrestling referee since last year.

Like many aficionados, Li hopes to see the sport added to the Paralympics.

"We're trying to change the public's impression of arm wrestling. It's a legitimate sport, not just for entertainment," said Li.

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