UPDATED: January 9, 2018 at 8:10 p.m.
Daniel A. DeBois ’18 and Archie J.W. Hall ’20 defeated hundreds of opponents to win the 2018 World Universities Debating Championship last week, becoming the third Harvard team to take first prize in the international competition in the last five years.
Hosted in Mexico City, Mexico from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, the tournament featured more than 300 teams from roughly 90 countries. DeBois and Hall, a Crimson News editor, comprised one of four teams that the Harvard College Debating Union sent to Mexico.
After waiting hours to hear the final decision, the duo jumped up and down when judges announced them as the winners in a 5–4 vote over Princeton University, DeBois said.
“There was a lot of jumping around and hugging,” said DeBois, who serves as president of the College’s debating union. “I almost forget exactly what happened because it was just so exciting.”
The victory marks the fourth time a Harvard team has ever won the international competition. Harvard last won the competition in 2016.
Though DeBois and Hall came away with the ultimate title, all of Harvard’s teams did well, coaches said. For the first time in Harvard history, all of the College’s teams made it to the elimination rounds after competing in the preliminary rounds, according to DeBois.
Harvard debaters and coaches said preparation for the competition was intense; they particularly noted American debaters had to work hard to adapt to British Parliamentary debating style, the format used in the tournament. More generally, all debaters must be prepared with an expansive arsenal of arguments and up-to-date information.
Joshua P. Zoffer ’14, a former debating union president and coach, said adapting to the British debating format can be “like learning a second language.”
Moreover, “the Worlds topics can be on anything and you don’t find them out until fifteen minutes ahead of time,” said Zoffer, a former World Universities Debating champion himself.
Fanelesibonge S. Mashwama ’17, who won the international tournament in 2016 and formerly serves as president of the debating union, traveled to Mexico City to support DeBois and Hall. Mashwama said strategizing for debate competitions involves analysis of past tournament performances and assessment of opponents.
“You just go and you hope, it’s sort of a crapshoot to be totally honest,” Mashwama said.
This year’s final topic was unlike any other topic assigned during the tournament, DeBois said. The teams were asked to choose between saving the life of a single child and extending the lives of a handful of adults by a decade.
“What we saw with Danny and Archie in the final is certainly that they didn’t know any more than any other team,” said debate team coach Sarah M.C. Balakrishnan, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in history at Harvard.
“They weren’t more informed. They weren’t luckier. They were just better debaters, and that’s why they won the finals,” Balakrishnan added.
The 2018 tournament will be the last debating competition either DeBois or Hall compete in, the duo said. DeBois said his debating career is finished given he is a senior and will soon graduate. Hall, however, has chosen to retire from competition as a sophomore, though he said he will still help judge and organize competitions for Harvard's debate team.
“I am definitely going to miss the team, and I am going to try and stay involved helping younger people,” DeBois said. “I told myself I loved debating for seven and a half years now, and this was the last chance I had to do something that I really enjoyed competitively.”
Cliodhna D. Ni Cheileachair, one of Harvard’s debate coaches and a student at the Law School, said it is “heartbreaking” to have Hall leave. She added, though, that the team’s recent victory is “really significant for next semester, for keeping [their] momentum up.”
Zoffer said he thinks debate trains the mind to evaluate global issues rigorously—an effect heightened by participation in the World Universities Debating Championships.
“Doing the World Championships just exposes you to people and ideas from all over the world,” Zoffer said.
Mashwama said he agreed.
“You make friends across the world—there are very few major cities where these guys would not have friends in, to crash for a night,” Mashwama said. “I think it’s a bit of a moral education in that people form deep views of the world.”
—Staff writer Andrea M. Bossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.—Staff writer Elizabeth H. Yang can be reached at email@example.com.
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