The biggest take-away from this year’s Worlds University Debating Championships was that you can put 1400 of the most engaging brilliant young minds across the world in an old gym hall on a farm outside of Thessaloniki, and they will all come up with amazing ideas and insights and prove to be fantastic friends.
This year’s Worlds took place in Greece. Ambitiously billed “Debating comes home”, 386 teams from over 50 different countries participated over nine days, debating 19 topics and crowning three champions in three language categories: Harvard A (English as a First Language), De La Salle A (English as a Second Language) and AET Athens A (English as a Foreign Language). The Dutch were represented by nine teams. The two teams from Leiden University reached the semi-finals of the ESL category; The team from Radboud University was knocked out of the quarter finals in the EPL category, setting a Dutch achievement record.
The Arrival Days
For most participants the competition started on the 27th of December, a cold, sunny and clear day in the second city of Greece. Arrival Days means saying old friends and meeting new. It means finding out with who you are supposed to share a hotel room for a week and whether there is warm water. (There was: in order to manipulate the temperature in our room Roel and I had to open the window more or less widely, though). And it means sight-seeing around the city. Members of the Leiden and Radboud delegations had a good excuse: the night before all the guys had decided that what they really needed were new shoes. Luckily, it turns out that in Thessaloniki the only window shops are shoe shops. Meanwhile we could stroll past the promenade and watch the large container ships make their way across the pristine street, and walk past a busy market where religious processions and traditional dances were held.The rest of our two days were remarkably calm – a silence before the storm, maybe? We walked around the city, finding new places to eat and discovering Greek cuisine rules on the way. Here are the three cardinal rules of Greek food ordering:
- The description of the food that the waiter gives is literally what they will serve. If you order a ‘plate of veggie burgers’ you will get three veggie burgers, probably taken and dusted off from the furthest freezer in the kitchen, and nothing else.
- The menu is often a suggestion rather than a to order list. One small restaurant we were in had a 10 page menu. When it came time to make an order, however, the old man running the place winked us to the front of the shop and pointed at a few big plates of food, giving one-syllable explanations. The food was delicious.
Similarly, another restaurant had a very large menu, partially translated in English. The non-translated parts all turned out to be pork, prepared in various different ways that the waiter couldn’t explain to us.
- Payment is not on order. Restaurant owners will waive down hapless first years, telling them that they’ll pay when he’s finished with his conversation. What you have to pay is determined by the owner looking at the plate, guessing what you had much like looking through tea leaves, and then giving a round numerical amount.
On the second day there were tournament briefings, to which none of us went, figuring out that if something truly controversial would be said in them the area would be abuzz with gossip within a couple of minutes. We were proven right when dark mutterings about new POI rules stormed through the hotel lobby. Instead of two questions per team you now had to take three, and you couldn’t cut off a speaker before they had given a POI for 15 seconds. In true liberal fashion these rules were quite quickly abandoned by most of the competition, apart from a Masters round where a speaker offered 15 seconds of silence, quipping “I just want to hear you not talk for a while”.
The frantic discussions of new POI rules were a symptom of something deeper: the frantic strategizing had begun amongst teams. Many teams huddled off to hotel rooms to have a final preparation debate, and a hidden battle to get in the most competitive prep debate was occurring. Other teams were scouting their competitions, scouring over tabs and the latest WUDC Watch blogpost. Everyone said to other speakers that they were going to do really well, and that they would love to meet each other in the final and, if they met before, they would gladly take the second to their first. Those promises were all broken before Round 7 had started.
Other participants regained some of their perspective and sanity and gathered in the hotel bar to give the staff there their busiest week of the year. The main conversation there was the price of drinks. Several delegations came in with enthusiastic news that they had found the cheapest liquor store yet. Room parties broke out, with some participants eager to add an extra challenge for the first day of the prelims. Other teams went to bed early, eager to shake off their jetlag and be prepared for a whole lot of speaking.
Before the crack of dawn the first debaters rose from their beds and stumbled down to breakfast. There was supposedly a breakfast schedule, but lack of Wi-Fi and alcohol made those inaccessible for most. Hurried volunteers rushed us into buses. Half an hour we were released on a green field, with some small buildings spread around a sloped countryside, looking over a gorgeous bay. The sun was warm and the site made for a great walk. It was also nothing alike a debating venue, which was usually a big university building with lots of lecture halls and seminar rooms. This made some of us wonder: where would we debate?
The answer shows that at least this year’s Worlds organisation was inventive. Over the course of three days we debated in a primary school, a high school, an emptied labroom, a hallway with several cubicles, a room with an ATM, both the common rooms and the bedrooms of dorms. I laid down my notes for my final speech of the inrounds on the top of a fridge. The motions and announcements were done in a large sports hall. Worlds was played in a village.
Making people a bit grumpier were long delays in between rounds. The reasons for this became more apparent as the days went on, and suffice it to say that by the start of day 3 every participant considered themselves an expert on the intricacies of tabbing and IT infrastructure. But no matter how loud the grumbling went, people were still enthusiastic and excited about debate. We had picnics in front of the building for vegetarian food. Last night’s gossip was spread with military precision and efficiency. People made up songs about the competition. The limited mobile internet was used to cement friendships through Facebook friend requests.
And there was a lot – a lot – of debating. Ideas spoken at lightning speed about topics we hadn’t considered were important, or existed, half an hour prior. Should we redistribute oil wealth globally? Should we have sunset clauses on constitutions? Is Taylor Swift good for feminism? By the start of round 9 every team felt as if they had done well and still had a shot at a few rounds more.
The break announcement is probably the strangest, most reality-bending part of any Worlds. Across the Earth people are huddled together in front of television screens or in pubs on the 31st of December, waiting until the last seconds tick away and a new year begins. At this debating tournament there is a momentary flash of excitement, starting when you realise at 10 to 12 that it is approaching midnight, and ending when you’ve wished a couple of people best wishes. The real excitement then builds: who is going to have the privilege to do more speaking?
It’s personal, but also accurate, to point out here how much I care about debating. I love listening to all the great ideas people argue about. But I mostly love how debating has taught me to vaguely structure so many of my ideas and have people commenting on them and pointing out when they’re good or bad. My partner and I had come here with the idea to have fun, but we also had felt that we could be the first Dutch team to reach the Open Break. So the most stressful moment, for us, was when the second language break was announced. We cheered when our good friends, sparring partners and pupils from Leiden made it. But with every team that was announced we hoped, silently, ‘don’t let it be us’. With the EFL and ESL break done and over with, our team name wasn’t mentioned. Some texts came in: Happy New Year! You didn’t break? Only half an hour later did I manage to text them back.
If you want to know what all this debating is by now, this was one of the best rounds of the competition.
Many people preparing us for Worlds had told us that this competition is a marathon, not a sprint. The Greeks had endeavoured to make it the toughest marathon yet. The combination of long days in the cold and students from all over the world led to many of us being quite ill. Armed with bags full of painkillers, throat syrup and tea laced with honey we approached the open outrounds.
Being fit for the outrounds wasn’t made easier by the fact that the Dutch organised a fantastic Next Host night the day before, including wildly popular stroopwafels and a more-than-life-sized cow from which beer could be milked.
We sometimes call debating a sport. From outsiders this may sound ridiculous. You don’t have to be particularly fit to debate. And the activity is called similar to that thing that politicians do in election time, when they shout barely comprehensible soundbites for an our into the ether. How is that compared to a great thinking game such as chess? But Worlds outrounds are probably the best approximation to sports that you can find. You are tired, and spend most of the outround day carefully conserving your energy so you can be as focused as possi ble when delivering a speech. Your social circle grows smaller, as you only have time and energy to talk for very briefly: “How did you do last round?” “I thought your speech was very good!” Your circle is only really expanded at the moment that they announce who advances to the next round. An intiguing form of national parochialism occurs, where your countries’ delegation cheers for and with you, and forms large circles of hugging and congratulating people. People waive their countries’ flags. And these national tribes only make way when there is some other binding factor you can cheer on. So the Dutch cheered along with the Israeli and the Malays when their teams advanced in the Open outrounds. In return the Israelis cheered louder than the Dutch when the Leiden teams made it through their quarters.
But the most novel and exhilarating part of Worlds is how much of a spectator sport it is becoming. The excellent streams by RadioMOF meant that hundreds of debaters could watch the debates in impeccable quality from their laptops or TV sets. Social media became a like-a-thon as debaters progressed deeper into the outrounds.
The biggest contrast for this was lunch. Lunch was served in packages that you could get in a completely empty carpark. There were no other people apart from debaters, and in the distance there was an old creaky microphone playing wistful bossa nova covers of christmas songs. The atmosphere most resembled a nuclear impact test site.
Luckily on one nuked the fridge
The outrounds take place over two days. Regrettably for the Dutch, all three teams fell at their last hurdle of the day. The Leiden teams tripped on a motion in the semi-finals that eventually saw two proposition benches progress to the final. Bionda and I gave way in an excellent, but also frankly mental debate about creating a new country for African-Americans. What rested for us was to enjoy one of the socials of the evening (silent disco night or a Yakka party which, defying all rules of logic, was held on an alley as this would create less legal problems), or to crash into our beds. We preferred to sleep.
The final debates were terrific. It is commonly known amongst the many debaters who – publicly or privately – admit that they’ve watched every debate video on YouTube that the 2010 Worlds final was one of the best finals ever. The 2015 open final can stand alongside it with ease. All of the winners were worthy of their title. The Dutch delegation cheered maybe loudest for the team from Seoul, who spoke in a language category above their own and came close to taking the win.
Worlds is a student activity and a debating activity. It embodies elements of both. There are the very long discussions, the big parties, the fast friends making. The debating part of it is simply the icing on the top. See Worlds as a holiday camp for intelligent and confident young people. And then you will probably better understand why 1400 people gave up their Christmas holidays to be on a Greek farm school having a heated discussion about art ownership or the role of the criminal justice system. We do it because it is fun.
And if you want to be a part of it next year, Worlds is coming to The Netherlands.