For Vancouver martial arts grand master Bin Sheng Xiao, the sport wushu has always made sense.
Xiao began training in wushu at age five and this weekend he will judge the Canadian National Wushu Championships in Toronto. He graduated from Beijing Physical Education University, completing a major in the martial art. He then went on to become the Chinese and Canadian national team wushu coach. “It is a Chinese way of health, self-defence and fitness,” he said, noting practitioners of all ages are drawn to the sport for its cultural and physical characteristics.
Xiao first visited Vancouver in 1987 when he was invited by Overseas Chinese Voice, one of the city’s only Chinese-language radio stations at the time. In 1990, he opened his martial arts studio on Southweset Marine Drive in the shadow of the Arthur Liang Bridge.
Sitting in the middle of his wushu studio, Xiao explained the sport through a translator. The school's instructors, who've worked and trained with Xiao for years, sat mesmerized by the man who went through school with Jet Li's coach. It was as if this was the first time they, too, were hearing about the sport.
Undoubtedly, Xiao knows wushu. Many other North Americans, however, don’t.
The International Olympic Committee in July announced wushu was one of eight sports—along with baseball, softball, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, squash and wakeboard— vying for a spot at the 2020 Olympic Games.
While the other seven sports pushing for Olympic induction sound familiar to many North Americans, for the most part wushu remains foreign.
Nonetheless, the sport is well known by another name. Wushu is the formal title for what has come to be known as kung fu, according to Xiao.
The term “kung fu” has been embedded into North American pop culture in large part because of Hollywood movies, Xiao said.
"The term kung fu came about when Westerners started watching wushu films," Xiao said, listing the works of Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan as examples. "They were trying to figure out a term for it, so they termed it kung fu. What you're actually watching is wushu."
The Chinese term kung fu translates to “expertise” and stems from the Cantonese-speaking populations of China that use it in context with the martial arts, said Alan Tan, director of management and operations of Wushu Canada.
"Kung fu is the Western-adopted word that is used to describe wushu," Tan said, noting the latter as the sport's formal title at tournaments and championships.
Competitive wushu, divided into performance and combative categories, is judged on a point system that ranks levels of difficulty, speed and presentation based on a foundation of striking, kicking, stance work, balance coordination and elements of physicality.
In 2008, wushu made an informal Olympic appearance with an event at the Beijing Summer Games.
The athletes, Tan said, received Olympic medals, stayed in the Olympic Village and had the privileges of athletes participating in official sports.
Xiao attended the 2008 tournament. He was North America's only officially appointed judge.
About 60 athletes qualified for the tournament, including three Canadians. Of the three, one placed fourth, the others placed fifth.
Most of the Beijing tournament's gold medals were won by China, Xiao said.
When compared to national favourites like swimming, the number of wushu athletes across Canada is slim, but Wushu Canada does rank in the international top ten, Tan said.
The top three countries: China, Iran, and Russia.
"There's a lot of opposition," said James Ng, an instructor at Grand Master Xiao Martial Arts and Sports Fitness Club. "They feel [wushu] is a one-country sport."
In terms of international participation, the number of wushu federations is increasing, said Christophe Dubi, International Olympic Committee's sports director.
"It shows that [wushu] is growing outside of China," Dubi said. "It is not because [a sport] is rooted somewhere that you get an advantage."
Table tennis, gymnastics, and badminton, Dubi notes, are sports that originated in Europe but now are dominated by Asia.
While the likes of taekwondo and judo, sports that came from martial arts, are already on the Olympic menu, Dubi said the decision to potentially add more martial arts to the roster was simple—it's popular.
"The popularity at this level is phenomenal," Dubi said of wushu. "It's a growing phenomenon."
But wushu is not the only growing sport eyeing the Olympics.
Of the eight sports vying for the Games, only one will get the spot, making the Games' list of 28 official sports at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, its host currently undecided.
The eight sports federations will present their bid to the executive board, which will select one, and that one will then be presented at the 2013 IOC session. That sport will have to then win two thirds of members’ votes to become an official sport.
The squash federation, also fighting for the sport, has hired a firm that helped rugby get into the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro. That same firm also helped London, Rio and Pyeongchang, South Korea, win its Olympics bids.
Wushu is still working on it.
"Without any outside help, it would be very difficult for wushu to become a recognized sport in 2020," Xiao said. "But with the proper help, it could happen."
Noting the exposure the Olympics can provide, and the potential effects in Canada alone, Xiao said, "It's gonna be big.”
Of all sports bidding for the slot, Tan said, wushu would make the biggest splash on the international sports scene, for the very same reasons it stands out now on the list of eight: It's novel.
"It's the sport where everybody has seen it, but they don't know what it is," Tan said. "They don't recognize it right now."
The end goal however, isn't to get to the Olympics, Tan said. It's to formally introduce wushu to North America, and the world, and then turn it into a mainstream sport.
"It's a stepping stone,” Tan said of the 2020 Games. “It's a goal, but it's not the goal."