Photo: Dr. Daisaku Ikeda. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun. - Photo: 2021

Asian Sports Should Be Better Represented in Olympics

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — Japan was the first Asian country to host a summer Olympic Games in 1964 and this year became the only Asian country to host it twice. The Olympics that concluded on August 8, included very few sports that could be called Asian, and the question begs whether Japan had done enough to promote more Asian sports in the latest Olympic Games.

Five new sports entered the Olympics program in Tokyo—Skateboarding, Karate, Surfing, Baseball/Softball, and Sports Climbing—except for Karate (that was reinstated to the Olympic program) none of the other sports could be considered as popularly practiced in Asia, except in some urban enclaves. Volleyball, a popular sport played by millions of people across Asia was included in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics program and it has remained an Olympic sport ever since. Japan should have pushed for more popular traditional Asian sports such as Sepak Takraw to be included in the 2020 Games.

When Seoul hosted the Olympic Games in 1988, they included a 2000-year-old martial art known today as Taekwondo into the Olympic program as a demonstration sport, and since the 2000 Games in Sydney, it has maintained its status as a full medal sport.

One of the enduring images of the Sydney 2000 Games was when Lauren Burns won Australia’s first gold medal in Taekwondo and she was carried off the stage on the shoulders of her delighted Korean coach to wild applause from the Australian spectators. This year Thailand’s Panipak Wongpattanakit won the gold medal from Spain’s Adriana Cerezo Iglesias in the women’s taekwondo 49kg event at Tokyo 2020. Thus after becoming an Olympic sport the game has won converts around the world.

Two other Asian sports that are knocking on the doors of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are Sepak Takraw and Kabbadi. The former sport, also known as kick volleyball, is said to have originated around the 9th century in Asia. The objective of the sport is for one team (of 5 players) to send the ball over the net and ground it in the opponent’s half. In Sepak Takraw, players are not allowed to use their hands. They pass and shoot by leaping high in the air, inverting their bodies to slam the ball with great velocity.

I was introduced to this sport at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, which I covered for an international news agency. At the final in Bangkok’s 10,000 capacity indoor stadium where Thailand and Indonesia competed for gold, I witnessed a gyrating Indonesian kick a rattan ball over the net and it was returned by an equally acrobatic Thai player who used a summersault kick to land the ball on the ground between 2 Indonesian players stretching their legs to reach it to the delight of a capacity crowd of drum-beating Thai fans. The atmosphere there was electrifyingly matching the action on the court.

Ever since then I have been wondering why Sepak Takraw is not an Olympic sport. It has the potential to become one of the greatest spectator sports in the world, and it is tailor-made for television. Those Southeast Asian billionaires who have a fetish to invest in British football clubs should put their money into developing Sepak Takraw as a global televised sport.

According to Abdul Halim Kader, director-general of the International Sepak Takraw Federation (ISTF), they are yet to be recognized as an international federation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  “We hope to be recognized within the next four years,” he told Japan’s, Nikkei Asia.

For a new sport to be approved by the IOC for inclusion, it has to follow certain guidelines such as being governed by an International Federation which undertakes to follow the rules of the Olympic Charter, and it must also be practiced widely across the world. It is questionable whether Olympic sports such as Equestrian and Sailing could fall into the latter category as these are elite sports practiced by a few rich people in rich countries.

A new criterion has crept into the IOC thinking lately, that may explain the questionable inclusion of new trendy sports (if you can call them so) in western countries in some urban conclaves across Asia, that has been promoted by the Anglo-American global television network in particular.

In introducing new sports into the Tokyo and Paris Olympic program, such as bicycle motocross, BMX, skateboarding and surfing, IOC President Thomas Bach explained: “We want to take sports to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more than they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”

John Duerden, a Singapore-based sports journalist writing in the Today newspaper argues that a new sport has to convince the IOC that they have as much to offer off the court in terms of marketability and revenue from broadcasting and sponsorship.  Thus, Skateboarding scored highly on social media engagement with the 18 to 34 age group, a key requisite for the IOC. This is the same reason for including the other sports excluding Karate.

“The IOC has become especially interested in sports that appeal to the next generation amid concerns that young people are not as interested in the Olympics as their parents and grandparents,” notes Duerden.

This is perhaps a challenge Kabaddi has taken up, which is mainly popular in South Asia, home to about 1/3rd of the global population. It is a fast-paced game where teams of seven try to venture into the opponent’s territory and touch as many rivals as possible. Kabaddi’s biggest challenge is persuading the IOC that the game is followed to a significant degree outside its South Asian homeland.

Since being included as an Asian Games sport in 1990, Kabbadi’s appeal in Asia has increased and in the 2018 Jakarta Games, 11 teams participated that included Japan, South Korea, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia. China has not participated since the 1990 Games, and while India has dominated the gold medal tally, in 2018 India’s dominance was halted when Iran won gold.

A Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) modelled on India’s successful IPL cricket extravaganza was launched in India in 2014. Because Kabaddi is hugely popular in grassroots communities that are infiltrated by satellite television, the PKL has become a huge success with the inaugural season attracting 435 million viewers. It has been modelled for television with a style of commentary and presentation that is similar to the telecast of Sumo Wrestling. Thus, it has the potential to become a global phenomenon like the latter. In April this year, Star India renewed its contract to broadcast PKL at a fee of $24 million a year.

If Kabaddi could attract similar audiences Sumo Wrestling attracts across the world, it will go a long way in convincing IOC’s Euro-centric minds to include the sport in the Olympics, and the same would apply to Sepak Takwra.

Meanwhile, Abdul Halim Kader of ISTF says they are pushing for Sepak Takraw to be included in the 2030 Youth Olympics, which is likely to be hosted in Thailand. “This could be a first step (towards becoming an Olympic sport),” he says. [IDN-InDepthNews — 10 August 2021]

Photo: Iran men’s national kabaddi team, which won gold, halting India’s dominance in Asian Games 2018. Credit: Fars News Agency. CC BY 4.0

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