And that, as they say, is that

I’ve finally returned home after two whirlwind weeks in Doha, Qatar.

As you’ll recall, I was representing Canada as one of the country’s official adjudicators at the 22nd World Schools Debating Championships. To say it was an incredible experience would be an understatement.

Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned and the generous sponsorship of the Qatar Foundation, QatarDebate staged the largest competition in the championship’s 22-year history: a record 57 countries competed.

I’d every intention of blogging more regularly about my experiences; however, once things got going, I simply didn’t have the time to do so. No excuse, I know, but true nonetheless: as anyone who’s been to the tournament can attest, it’s an all-consuming enterprise. As such, rather than providing you with a play-by-play accounting of events, I’m forced to pen a retrospective…

Arrival

As I previously mentioned, I arrived a few days before the tournament began – to get my bearings, overcome the inevitable jet lag and spend some time by the pool. Minus the jet lag, which dogged me for almost a week, I did just fine: bearings were straightened; pool time was had. However, I quickly discovered something that would test my ability to truly unwind while in Doha: the booze ain’t cheap.

One finger of the bargain-basement hard stuff was a stiff 35 Qatari Riyals and skunky pints of Heinekin 44. With the Riyal pegged to the US Dollar at approximately 3-to-1, that’s about $15 for a beer or $12 for an ounce of Johnny Walker Red. Granted, as I remarked to a friend, if high-priced liquor was going to be my only worry, I think I’d do just fine while in Doha.

As it happens, once the tournament began, it became immediately apparent I was going to do much better than fine. And so, it would seem, would Team Canada. (See: Making History, below; or, refer to my previous post about same.)

The Debates

Right. The debates. The reason I travelled almost 12,000 kilometers and crossed 9 time zones.

The rules, resolutions, draw and results are all available through the tournament website. To summarize:

  • Each country is entitled to field a team of 3, 4 or 5 debaters, all of whom prepare for the various debates; however, only 3 debate in any one round against a single, opposing team of 3.
  • All 57 countries competed in 8 preliminary rounds of debate; 4 on prepared topics, 4 impromptu.
  • Each preliminary round is judged by a panel of 3 adjudicators, each of whom must select a winner independently, resulting in either unanimous or split decisions.
  • This year, Canada finished second after the preliminary rounds, winning all 8 of their debates, taking 22 adjudicators out of a possible 24, and earning a combined 6,171 speaker points.
  • Following the preliminary rounds, the top 16 teams advanced to a series of power-paired elimination rounds.
  • Canada fought their way past Ireland (4-1) in the Octos, New Zealand (6-1) in the Quarters and Singapore (9-0) in the Semis to reach the Grand Final; once there they faced off against England and triumphed again with a convincing 8-3 win.

I can’t take any credit for Team Canada’s phenomenal success this year; while they were kicking ass and taking names, I was busily judging other rounds. All the same, as a Canadian, I have no qualms about letting feelings of pride fill me up. Their win is ours to share; proof of our indefatigable Canadian spirit; a triumph of patience, perseverance and passion.

As for my debates, I judged (and chaired) all 8 preliminary rounds. Most were thoroughly enjoyable – which is no surprise, since these teams comprised the best and brightest high school students each of the 57 countries had to offer.

I was also called upon to judge the Octos and the Quarters. Were it not for Canada’s winning streak, I may well have judged the Semis, too. That I didn’t, I cannot complain: I’ve had the privilege of judging countless Semi-Finals and four previous Grand Finals – in ’03, ’06, ’07 and ’09. Besides, I was able to witness, firsthand, Canada’s historic victories against Singapore and England.

In all, the debating was as good as its ever been. In fact, in some respects, it was even better – thanks to the growing number and diversity of teams.

Sights and Sounds

Of course, the WSDC is about more than just debating: even nerds need a little R-and-R.

This year, the organizers pulled out all the stops, offering tours of the city and its various sights and sounds, a barbecue and fireworks show in the desert, an outdoor performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a break-night party under a massive, bedouin-style tent, and plenty of time poolside to soak up the hot sun. In all, they gave students and adults alike a wonderful window into Doha life, specifically, and, more generally, modern Arab culture. They also ensured everyone had oodles of fun.

Okay, I can’t speak for everyone, but I sure had fun. Frankly, it was hard not to.

Imagine, for the moment, you have a group of roughly 500 people. You want to transport them all roughly 100 kilometers outside of Doha. Past the city, with its pristine motorways and immense traffic circles, there’s just sand. And so, you bus them as far as you can outside of town. However, once the road ends, you need to move them by something better able to traverse the dunes. You opt for Toyota Land Cruisers, which seat 6.

Do the math.

Then imagine for the moment the sight of nearly 100 of these well-worn V8 monsters, tires slightly deflated to better coast over the sand, loaded with students from every corner of the globe, racing across the desert towards the massive, inland sea that separates Qatar from Saudi Arabia.

If that doesn’t scream fun, I don’t know what does.

But wait, there’s more.

Once at the coast – which is absolutely breathtaking – you come upon a massive camp, replete with tents, loud speakers, an area for dancing, camels, a falcon ready to perch itself upon your arm, buffet tables overflowing with delicious Middle Eastern fare. The whole nine yards.

And when dinner’s been served, music died down, dancing stopped: fireworks.

Sounds like fun, eh? It was.

Of course, hands down, the most fun moment of the competition came shortly after the conclusion of the Grand Final debate – when the Chief Adjudicator announced Canada had bested England.

Making History

That’s right, Canada won!

The last time Team Canada did so was the very first year the competition was held, in Canberra, Australia in 1988. Since then, successive teams have chased gold in vain, coming up short year after year after year. But on a fateful Thursday afternoon in Doha, the 22-year-long dream became real, thanks to nine intrepid Canadian teenagers and one outstanding coach.

Despite the Olympics, the other Team Canada’s historic win wasn’t lost on Canada’s news media:

Cool, eh? I thought so.

After all, when was the last time you read about high school debating in a major daily? Exactly.

Desert Safari

In a wonderful bit of serendipity, the Canadian delegation had opted to spend a few extra days in Qatar after the conclusion of the tournament, including a night out in the desert under the stars.

Who could have foreseen that those extra few days would be spent in celebration? Not me, I assure you. Still, what a wonderful few days they proved to be. Especially the night in the desert.

We’d returned to an area very near the setting of our desert babecue. No fireworks, no loudspeakers, no dancing, however; just us, the sand beneath our feet, the sound of waves lapping against the shore, the stars overhead. Peace.

Final Thoughts

The journey home was an uneventful one. As was the case when I flew to Doha, I returned via London-Heathrow and Toronto-Pearson. During the many hours in the air – hours I spent awake, trying desperately to reset my body clock to Central Standard Time – I was overcome with nostalgia.

Ten years.

I’d been coming to this competition for ten years: first as a competitor in Pittsburgh, in 2000; as an adjudicator thereafter. I’d already resolved this competition would be my last. That Canada won – finally – certainly didn’t change my mind. In fact, I’d long ago told myself I’d only keep coming back until Canada did so.

Still, it’s hard to let go.

This tournament has played such an important role in my life. Through it, I’ve met so many extraordinary people, seen so many amazing places, learned so many incredible things. At it, I’ve cried hard – and laughed even harder; danced, and sung, and partied with the kind of abandon that comes when your skin fits and you’re genuinely happy.

But, everything has an end.

And so, ten years after I arrived in snowy Pittsburgh, I bid farewell to sunny Doha. Thankfully, I carry with me a decade’s worth of memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

Asalam ‘Alaykum.

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