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Mouths for hire: We talk good

Peter Walsh won’t stop calling himself Y.T.

18 - walsh photoshop

Financially supported trips to Worlds Debating are hard to come by  especially at a debating Mecca like the University of Sydney. So if you just missed out and have a jones to talk competitively, your options are limited. You have to be a University Student and you have to be Formally Sponsored. This is a story about that.1 Last October, a pair of desperate oldsters looking for a free holiday – Greece being an appropriately cheap and foreign gateway drug for the rest of Europe – enrolled in a 10 Day Dip. of MGMT (Advanced) at the University of [REDACTED], Malaysia Campus.2

David3 and Keen4 are their names. Prodigious speakers at the high school level, the pair were first-reserves in their respective years at the state level, meeting formally at university after going hammer-and-tongs in tutorials for Geopol and America and the World, before finally discovering some common ground during Introduction to Macro. It was David who came up with the idea of bypassing Sydney University’s rigorous trial process by looking overseas and, after a brief Google, the pair settled on the aforementioned U of [R].

The University was intrigued by the sponsorship possibilities. Prior to this, U of [R] advertised almost exclusively in print and on late night television, on stations that only play at anodyne hotels.5 You can imagine how it looked. Course standards and employment rates roll on banners past clouds and blue skies (disclaimers running too small/fast along the bottom of the screen to be legible).

A particularly threatening Skype date settled the terms of the deal. Their patron, Provost of U of [R], appeared on the screen, a mess of veins and tight skin on a muscle-girded frame, wearing a singlet on which the University’s crest and motto (Latin for “intelligence through hard work” but misconstrued by Google Translate between Malaysian, English, and Latin to read “Strong Dog”) was displayed. He spoke unambiguously: make the finals6 and everything’s kismet; anything less and we’re far from copacetic. The audio on the call throttled in and out, reinforcing the threat by suddenly exploding from silence into the sound of dropped weights and grunts in the background. The pair would later realise the Provost’s office was dressed only for the conical gaze of a webcam and was actually located in a room full of exercise equipment on nausea-coloured linoleum floor.7

A cousin in Sydney brokered the flights for cheap through a backroom travel agent that mostly dealt in freight.8 Their itinerary charted a snakelike path across South East Asia, sharing a plane with sombre looking couriers and packages buckled like crash test dummies. So long was their travel, so stopover-wrought, that they – highly unusually, the person on the phone noted – registered for the tournament via Skype at 32,000 feet, in such clear breach of the ‘No Phones Rule’ that David felt compelled to double down on rebellion while undercutting anxiety and break the No Smoking In Bathrooms rule too. On arrival in Greece, they raced – luggage and all – to their first round, against the same USyd debaters they had avoided by not trialling. No other option, though. Their flights home had a pointed stopover in Singapore, and the threat represented by a pair of burly Malaysian fitness instructors at the arrival gate was sobering.

Competition began with complications. They bombed the first round through a combination of jetlag and petulant refusal to withdraw from the Middle East.9 In a conference call after the debate, the Provost introduced his Dean of Self-Improvement, who, to look at, had self-improved right out of the criminal justice system and into the tertiary sector. “Get it together, guys,” he warned, in a pop-psychology-by-way-of-solitary-confinement kind of way. But they didn’t. The next round was miffed when a “this is all your fault”-“no it’s yours” kind of argument erupted at the topic table, and led them to mistakenly prep affirmative when they were neg. Attempts to obscure this fact, by substituting “not” “anti-” and “un-” before as many words as they could were similarly futile. They approached the debates that followed through vacant eyes with thousand-palm card stares, speaking in dull warbles and bombing out every time.

The silent rounds were still to come, but the delegate math was pure Hillary. There weren’t enough points left for them to advance, so instead they returned to the hotel, and complained up a partial refund;10 re-directed their flights, absconded in the night.

  1. Full disclosure: Yours Truly has never attended one of these tournaments and ended an uninspiring debating career with an elimination loss to Tangara in the Catholic Schools Debating Association competition circa-2008. As a coach, Y.T. is 2-1, with his financial future dependent on how the 7s match up in ISDA next week.
  2. Don’t be fooled, the ‘university’ is online only, no bricks or mortar, but nonetheless shares something with our campus in terms of being run by very bad dudes.
  3. Pseudonym.
  4. Pseudonym, Dickensian (the man is a pleasure to be with).
  5. Without realising, David—who thought he found the University and enacted the plan of his own steam—had the idea implanted subconsciously when he, stoned out of his mind, sat couch potato at home base during Australs, 2013.
  6. Wearing U of [R] apparel, obviously.
  7. The university maintained a large merchandise line and, as the majority of teaching took place via video (esp. for the popular Dip. Phys Ed (Physiotherapy) stream), the staff including Provost staked out a bare corner of an Anytime Fitness in South Singapore to festoon a University crest and surreptitiously film demonstration videos or threatening Skype messages. The proprietor of the gym was unenthused but settled for a one-off fee and honorary doctorate.
  8. Y.T. can’t name him here, but if you contact Y.T. directly Y.T. will hook you up.
  9. Like any co-curricular, debating strategy evolves over time, and the arguments that pass at tournaments generally align with the broader political zeitgeist. University debaters 2016, so politically conscious and broadly left wing, have very little in common with prodigious high school debaters 2010, who resemble young Christopher Hitchenses for their freedom fetishism and predilection for boots on the ground.
  10. And realised later that it was the first successful argument they had proffered all tourney.