Wednesday was departure day for the aikido participants of the SportAccord World Combat Games in St. Petersburg. We asked a few of them how their experience had been – the ups as well as the downs.
The 80 participants and most of the officials and shihan teachers stayed at the Pulkovskaya Park Inn hotel, conveniently close to both the Peterburgsky arena, where the aikido demonstrations took place, and the airport. From morning to late afternoon, aikido practitioners checked out and pulled their luggage out to shuttle buses provided by the local Combat Games organizers.
We took the chance of getting their opinions of the event before leaving for their distant homes. They had both praise and criticism.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo from Hombu Dojo was one of the three shihans demonstrating at the final part of the aikido event. We caught him already at the Tuesday night sayonara party, and asked for his comments.
“Aikido is not competitive,” he states very firmly. “It's not about combat, but about harmony.”
Like many other aikidoka, he is uncomfortable with the name of the event. But he was impressed to see the many nations represented, the big ceremony of the whole event and the presence of other budo, such as kendo and judo.
He keeps contemplating whether aikido should continue to be part of the Combat Games.
“Before I thought not,” he tells us, and continues with a smile: “Now it's about fifty-fifty in my mind.”
He appreciates the exposure this event gives aikido, and the good this can do to the development of aikido in the world.
“In a small way we confirmed aikido internationally. And aikido must expand.”
He is inclined to think that participation in the Combat Games can be of some help in that respect.
Jikou Sugano is a 5th dan aikido instructor from Australia, who took part in several of the demonstrations. He was practically born into aikido, being the son of Seiichi Sugano Shihan, who passed away in 2010.
Jikou Sugano found the experience of the aikido Combat Games participation quite enjoyable.
“People from all the different countries could discover each other naturally through training,” he tells us.
In addition to the demonstrations and preparations for them, the days in St. Petersburg also contained several morning classes from different high grade instructors and a one-day seminar with the three shihan teachers Evenås, Tissier and Miyamoto, as well as Waka Sensei Mitsuteru Ueshiba.
It was quite a demanding schedule. The dedication of the participants was also visible in the quality of the demonstrations.
“It was evidence of a lot of effort,” he says.
Jikou Sugano regards the interaction and communication between the participants as particularly important when they go back home.
“It's a spirit that will attract new students.”
Sten Frödin from Sweden is a 24 years old 3rd dan who started to practice aikido already at the age of six. His Wednesday flight was in the evening, so he had a chance to stroll around in St. Petersburg during the day.
He was pleased with the whole experience of the Combat Games, but not overly so. What would have made him more enthusiastic?
“If things had worked more smoothly with the logistics,” he says. “And if we had the opportunity to do more at the demonstrations.”
He appreciated the morning classes and the Saturday seminar very much. There he got to meet and interact with the Japanese as well as people from many other nations.
“It was a bit crowded, but still rewarding.”
For the next World Combat Games he primarily hopes there will be more live-streaming. Far too little of the aikido event was aired. Sten Frödin shares this opinion with many others – participants as well as their aikido friends back home – who have tried to watch it online.
Ranya Iqbal is a 1st dan from Chile. Although she has practiced aikido for six years, she is the one of all the participants who started most recently. So, it was not a small thing for her to step onto the arena in front of an audience of hundreds – and a broadcast reaching all over the world.
“Of course I was nervous,” she says, “but within a few seconds of doing aikido I forgot everything.”
She is amazed by the size of the event.
“This was so big, and I did it. Now I can handle the rest.”
Part of that rest is playing the cello, which she has done for over 20 years. So she has experience both with the stage and with sincere training to prepare for it. Still, she found the packed schedule difficult, starting already with super-early morning training, and not always getting food when needing it.
Two things stand out to her: seeing the three shihan from different styles of aikido showing their vast experience, and hanging out with her aikido teacher and team mates. She is sure that will be her fondest memory. Along with the sheer size of it – and of Russia, she concluded after some sightseeing:
“It makes the experience grander. Some buildings were too wide to fit in one photo.”
Ivan Egorov from Moscow, Russia, is a 24 years old 2nd dan. He was disappointed already upon arrival.
“I thought we would be treated like athletes, but so much went wrong,” he complains. “And I didn't enjoy the food at all.”
He refers to the number of mishaps to logistics that appeared regarding transport, meals and training facilities. But he also had some doubts about the aikido demonstrations.
“In this kind of event, the demonstrations must be more show,” he says. “Even basic kihon can be presented in a more interesting way.”
He fears that most of the demonstrations might have been boring to the audience. But he did appreciate the pedagogic form of them, moving from the easy and slow to the more advanced things.
The Russian team really prepared for the Combat Games aikido demonstrations, starting already last December. They met many times for hard practice, mainly to make sure they were absolutely physically fit for the event. And they showed it in the demonstrations, proven by the reactions from the audience.
“The best was when we did a technique and people applauded during it. Once I heard somebody shout Bravo!”
Aleksandr Starovojtov is the president of the Slovenian Aikikai Association and 4th dan. He was the narrator in Russian all through the aikido demonstrations at the World Combat Games, so he saw all of it up close. That's what stands out in his experience of it.
“You could see the progression very clearly from 1st dan to 2nd, 3rd and so on,” he says. “That was priceless.”
Ju-hwan Sung from South Korea is 4th dan, working as a police officer. He has also worked for the UN in Timor-Leste, teaching aikido to refugees and creating budo events to improve social problems there.
What impressed him the most at the World Combat Games were the participants from Hong Kong and Switzerland, Jerald Tai and Gabriel Horsch, who were alone from their countries. They met in St. Petersburg and joined for the demonstrations. In spite of minimal preparation, they made a good performance.
“I thought that this is aikido,” Ju-hwan Sung says. “They met a couple of hours ago, and still looked like old friends.”
Therefore, he would love to see this as a model for future aikido participation at the World Combat Games – mixing the teams up, independently of nationality or aikido style.
“That would be an exchange leading to good harmony.”
He found the same delight in the seminar, where the teachers represented four clearly different styles, showing the wide scope of aikido.
He was not unaware of some small problems with the organization of the event, but brushes it off.
“That happens everywhere.”
Aikido is not that very big in South Korea yet, in spite of the large population. So, seeing the size of this event and meeting this many fellow aikido students from all over the world made a lasting impression on Ju-hwan Sung.
“I really appreciate this,” he says with great emphasis. The event made it clear to him: “I'm not alone.”