Class struggle looms in rich man's game

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2007, 12:00am

285 days to go

The fledgling Sunny Time Polo Club on the outskirts of Beijing may barely be known to the outside world, but the club's owner - a Beijing property developer called Xia Yang - is a man of bold ambitions.

Along with fellow horse-obsessed multi-millionaire Sohail Quraeshi, he wants to build an equestrian utopia on the dusty plains of northern China.

The duo want to use their millions to make polo - made popular among the world's elite by British imperialists over the past 200 years - a game for the masses.

They will also campaign to reinstate polo as an Olympic discipline after a 71-year absence, so ordinary Chinese can compete at future games.

Their collective aspiration was galloped out as quickly as the horses during an international polo tournament last weekend at Sunny Time Polo Club, a modest estate consisting of a mock Victorian clubhouse complete with roaring open fires, stables for Arabian horses and a full-size polo pitch on the edge of windswept grasslands.

Ambassadors from the Pakistan, Chile and Argentina embassies, various officials from the Chinese sports and equestrian associations, leading international and domestic businessmen, and assorted fashionistas from Beijing's booming yuppie class, attended the event.

They made their bumpy way down an out-of-the-way country lane in their BMWs and black Audis to watch an international team, captained by Pakistan-US national Quraeshi, defeat an all-Chinese side led by Xia. A few weather-beaten peasants dropped their hoes and crossed the fields to watch, too.

Prior to the match in the autumn sunshine, the dignitaries - most attending a polo game for the first time - sat upon the dais and were treated to a history lesson.

'Polo originated in China, went over the Silk Road to what is now Pakistan, was first discovered by the British in a little place in the Himalayas called Chitral, and then taken to India,' Quraeshi claimed, as the host, Xia, nodded in agreement on horseback.

He added that in India, the British did what they did best in their colonies. They created a polo club, wrote down rules and organised competitions, and took the sport around the world.

He neglected to mention other facts, that the British invariably also barred locals, pets, women and their own working classes from the lounge bar clubhouse - if not membership entirely - and the sport has since become a symbol of wealth, privilege and closely guarded exclusivity.

Not for the first time, a dispute over whether the chukka was first whacked by men on horseback in the Middle Kingdom was sparked among a section of the spectators. For its part, the Federation of International Polo (FIP) claims the origins of the game are lost in the mists of antiquity.

Whatever the past, in the future it will definitely be worth keeping an eye on a substantial plot of countryside between Beijing and Tianjin. It is there that Quraeshi's and Xia's vision of building 'the ultimate equestrian community in the world' is poised to become a reality.

Teaming up with local government officials, Quraeshi and Xia have formed a joint venture. Together with rich, polo-playing businessmen from Chile and other parts of the world, they have pledged millions of dollars to fund the Chinese polo renaissance.

Quraeshi runs the property investment company based in Beijing and owns a world championship-winning polo team in the US. He has pledged US$10 million of his own money, and said a bottomless equity pot now exists to bankroll the venture.

Xia is executive director of the polo committee of the Chinese Equestrian Association. He has ploughed millions of yuan into Sunny Time, and became interested in polo after watching footage of Britain's Prince Charles playing a match with the sultan of Brunei in 1996. 'I felt in love with the game and wanted to play it myself,' he said.

The rebirth of Chinese polo will see a split with the current world order, run by the FIP which, Quraeshi claims, is a rich man's club of retired players who 'travel the world' funded by sponsors maintaining the spirit of elitism.

'We are basically going to sponsor the poor to play, and promote affordable academies for Chinese,' he said.

The new, as yet unnamed organisation will see polo club patrons from around the world help 'promote the spirit of polo and not the elitism'.

'We will break down the elitist barrier. And through our philanthropic efforts, we will spread the sport for all, in countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia and throughout the world, with the headquarters at its home, in China,' he added.

Chinese officials are being lobbied to allow a public park in Beijing to be used as an exhibition field during the Olympics next year. And Quraeshi's and Xia's new organisation will lobby the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reinstate polo for first time since the 1936 Munich Games.

'The earliest polo can be played in the Olympics again will be at the 2016 Games because it takes seven years to go through the process of electing a sport. And yes, we do look at things like elitism to decide [if a sport is to be included],' a spokeswoman from the IOC said.

If the centre takes off, China might not have to rely on the likes of 17-year-old Alex Hua Tian, a young Etonian born in London to an affluent Chinese father and an English mother, until now hailed as the lone rider capable of bringing Olympic glory to China.

Instead, imagine a young stable lad from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the deserts of Gansu or the even the plains of Tibet taking up such illustrious reins for China eight years from now.

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