Juggling world in a spin over future of the 'sport'

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The Independent US

The annual festival of the International Juggling Association, now under way in Portland, Oregon, provides a forum for the members to show off their tricks, performing with clubs, balls and anything else they can keep in the air.

This year, the festival has a visitor, a world-class juggler named Jason Garfield, who, despite his skills, is viewed with suspicion and hostility by some of the 600 jugglers attending.

Garfield's crime has been to form the rival World Juggling Federation (WJF), which eschews tricks in favour of technical skills and competitive tournaments and threatened to cause a bitter and perhaps permanent split among America's jugglers.

To the outsider, juggling does not seem a pastime likely to breed controversy and lead to vitriolic disputes, yet since Garfield formed the WJF three years ago the juggling world has been in turmoil.

The entertainers of the International Juggling Association (IJA) had described him as a dictator who was crushing the creativity out of juggling; he retaliated by calling them hippies and hacks.

But his presence at the festival is being seen by some as a conciliatory gesture that will go a long way towards healing the rivalry that has existed between the two organisations that hold such different views of the same activity.

"It's more a difference of opinion as to what juggling is all about," said Joyce Howard, a board member of the IJA. "We are getting closer together. The fact that Jason is here at our festival is an indication that although we are rival organisations we are starting to work together. He is more focused on the sport of juggling while we are focused on the artistic and hobby side of it."

The IJA, which for decades has been the primary body, promotes juggling as a form of entertainment; Garfield's WJF is dedicated to juggling as a sport and he hopes it will eventually become an Olympic event.

In WJF juggling contests, contestants are judged on the difficulty of their routines and the technical skill with which they execute them. The object is not to entertain, but to win. "They are very technical," Ms Howard said. "They don't give points for performance or artistry as we do; in fact those things count against the juggler."

Garfield, shaven-headed, muscular, and at 31 a professional juggler for 20 years, concedes the aims of the two organisations are different but maintains he holds no ill will towards his rivals. "We are different organisations with different goals," he said. "I want to see people competing as athletes. My organisation is more sport-based and theirs is geared towards entertainment, although a lot of people like both. Juggling is whatever you want it to be; it's done in many different ways. Some people think it should be done only the way they do it while others are more broad-minded and can see both sides of the argument."

Garfield has already taken giant steps towards making juggling a big-time professional sport by persuading the ESPN TV network to broadcast the first two WJF championships in 2004 and 2005. His fledgling organisation has also had a major boost by the membership of two Russian juggling prodigies named Vova and Olga Galchenko, who are being fêted as the best jugglers in the world.

Vova, 18, and Olga, 15, grew up in the small industrial city of Penza, about 400 miles from Moscow. They began juggling for fun but it soon became a serious business for them.

They left Russia three years ago and moved to the US, first staying with a circus performer they had met in Russia, then moving to Los Angeles. Garfield met the Galchenkos shortly after they arrived in America and became their unpaid coach. Since then, they have learnt to speak nearly perfect English, performed around the world and won major competitions.

They hold the world record for two people juggling 10 clubs between them and making 378 catches. They also hold the records for 11 clubs (152 catches) and 12 clubs (54 catches).

Stage juggling depends on making tricks look difficult, but the Galchenkos make everything look easy, prompting the magician and juggler Penn Jillette to say: "The two of them are not just the best in the world, they are the best there has ever been."

They are ideal recruits for Garfield's WJF because they have no interest in showbusiness or comedy patter; they are focused solely on technical prowess.