Debaters take top contests

As a resurgent Bulldog football squad downed Harvard in Cambridge, across the Atlantic Yale debaters became the first Americans — and the first Elis — to win two of the international debate community’s most prestigious tournaments.

Rising to the top of a field of nearly 200 debaters, Dylan Gadek ’07 and Josh Bone ’08 captured the Cambridge Intervarsity Championship on Nov. 18, just one week after fellow Elis Adam Chilton ’07 and David Denton ’07 became the first Americans to win the Oxford Intervarsity tournament. The two victories mark the first time any university has won both tournaments in the same year, and Chilton, the president of the Yale Debate Association, was also the first person to win the top speaker awards at both events.

The two tournaments — along with the World Universities Debating Championship, or Worlds — are debate’s most prominent international competitions and draw students from nearly 40 countries. But European and Canadian teams have long dominated these three events as American debaters, who are accustomed to a distinctly American format, have struggled to adapt to international competition’s British parliamentary format, Bone said.

“In England, debate is the preeminent extracurricular activity, and it gets a level of attention that is not bestowed on debate in the U.S.,” Bone said. “In the past, American debaters haven’t been respected in the international community.”

But last year, Denton and Bone made it to the finals of Worlds — ending a 12-year final round drought for American debaters. Also at that competition, Beth O’Connor ’03 LAW ’07 and Rory Gillis ’06 shared the top speaker award. Add that to this November’s Oxford and Cambridge victories, and things are looking up for American debate, Chilton said.

“This is the first time Americans have shown they can compete,” he said. “I think that [these victories] will make Yale clearly the best team in the world this year.”

Yale’s success has resulted from the YDA’s recent focus on British parliamentary style in addition to the traditional American format, Chilton said. O’Connor, who debated for Cambridge University while studying on a Gates fellowship in 2003-04, has emphasized the importance of the international format as the team’s unofficial coach, and the team has tried to expose its younger members to the British style by sending large teams to Worlds and tournaments in Canada.

This year, the YDA hosted a British parliamentary tournament for time first time, providing schools from across the United States and Canada an additional chance to familiarize themselves with the international format.

This training has been critical to Yale debaters’ recent successes, Chilton said, as the two competition formats differ markedly. The British style emphasizes current events and is generally faster paced, while the American format is more philosophical and tends to consider legal or domestic policy questions.

In the past, unfamiliarity with the British system has intimidated American teams, Gadek said, but that could change if schools like Yale continue to do well in international competition.

“Most American schools are content not being part of the world debate community — they think it’s not even worth trying,” he said. “But if they can see [other American schools] doing well after putting in the effort, then a lot more schools will be interested.”

For now, Yale debaters — and some of their competitors from other American teams — are reveling in the school’s groundbreaking victories and hope that it will pave the way for future international success.

“For the first time maybe ever, and certainly in institutional memory, an American school is respected internationally and thought of highly,” said Michael Reilly, a Princeton senior and the 2006 American Parliamentary Debate Association champion. “This creates a bridge for America to do better.”

That should be welcome news not only for Yale debaters, but also for the student body at large: Princeton may share Yale’s Ivy League football title, but in the world of debate, Yale reigns alone.

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