Sat, 16 Sep 2000

Asian sports marginal in Olympics

By Kalinga Seveviratne

SINGAPORE: A jam-packed stadium of 10,000 boisterous drum- beating spectators roared their delight as a cartwheeling Thai kicked a rattan ball over a "badminton" net past his Malaysian foe, whose airborne acrobatics failed to smash the ball back over the net.

This was a climactic scene from the finals of sepak takraw, one of the most popular sports in Southeast Asia, at the Bangkok national indoor stadium during the Asian Games in December 1998.

The excitement and the atmosphere within the stadium were so electric that I wondered why such exciting and visually attractive Asian sports are not part of the Olympics, while comparatively unexciting and elitist sports like equestrian and synchronized swimming are part of the world's sporting extravaganza.

During the Bangkok Games I explored this point further, talking to people involved in Asian sports such as sepak takraw, wushu and kabbadi, which are all part of the Asian Games.

The message I got was that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has drafted the inclusion rules in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get any sport into the Olympics, unless it has made its mark in Europe or North America.

A sport has to be played in all five continents before it can be considered for inclusion in the Olympic Games.

"Games played by a large number of people should be included in the Olympics. There is a certain form of discrimination against Asian sports," said Achintya Kumar Saha, secretary- general of the Asian Amateur Kabbadi Federation.

He pointed out that sports like equestrian, sailing and yachting are included in the Olympics, although they have limited participation even in Western countries.

Kabbadi, on the other hand, Saha contended, is played by more than 270 million people in India, and millions across Asia, especially in countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

At the Bangkok Games, Thailand and Japan also fielded teams.

India has over 25,000 kabbadi clubs; Japan has 30 kabbadi clubs; and Thailand has imported an Indian coach.

In May this year. over 15,000 people attended an annual kabbadi festival staged by Britain's Indian community at West Bromwich's Hawthorn stadium in London.

The origins of kabbadi can be traced to India over 3,500 years ago, although the Thais claim that it developed from an ancient recreational sport called Tee Jab.

Another traditional sport with popular mass support in Asia is wushu, a form of Chinese martial arts, which is making a concerted bid to be accepted as an Olympic sport. Its chances will receive a huge boost if Beijing wins the 2008 Olympic bid.

The International Wushu Federation applied for its inclusion in the Sydney Olympics as a demonstration sport, but was rejected.

There are over 300 wushu schools in China. There are wushu schools across Asia, and in the West, particularly in the United States, Britain and Germany.

Wushu has been an Asian Games sport for some time and, at Bangkok, 10 countries competed for medals. A new category called shanshou was also introduced, which is a fast, sparring event designed to make this non-combative sport more exciting.

As for sepak takraw, it holds great promise of becoming a very popular globalized sport in the future, as it is tailor-made for television.

Commonly described as volleyball played with the feet, its excitement lies in the speed, grace and skill of players who aim to outwit their opponents with deft strokes and lethal spikes.

Creative movements like the sunback spike, similar to soccer's bicycle kick, add to the excitement.

Sepak takraw was first played 500 years ago and the Thais lay claim to inventing the game.

Today, it is played in over 20 countries, with a growing following in South America. It is also played in the United States, Finland, Canada and Australia, with Darwin the venue of a popular annual tournament between Asian and Australian teams.

When asked about its chances of being included in the Olympic Games, one Asian sepak takraw official in Bangkok responded sarcastically: "Not until Europeans are able to dominate the game."

The IOC, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and is dominated by Europeans, refuses to accept any sport as a medal event in the Olympics unless it has a proven international following, arguing that marginal sports would be monopolized by their nations of origin.

This argument however smacks of double standards if you look at some of the sports already included in the Olympics.

One can argue that sports such as synchronized swimming, beach volleyball and equestrian do not have a "proven international following", or even mass national participation in competing countries. Add sailing and yachting to this list.

By comparison, judo was added to the Olympics at the 1964 Tokyo Games and has increased its international profile dramatically since. At Sydney, over 40 countries spanning all continents will be competing in judo.

Conversely, beach volleyball, which became an Olympic sport in Atlanta in 1996, will see competition by 17 countries -- all from Europe and America.

The record for synchronized swimming is even more questionable. Added to the Olympics at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, only six countries will be competing in the team events. The United States and Canada, between them, have won all the gold and silver medals since the event was introduced.

At Sydney, another traditional Asian sport, the Korean martial art of taekwondo, will make its Olympics debut. It was introduced as a demonstration sport at the Seoul Games in 1988, but had to wait for two more games before getting the green light from the IOC.

Taekwondo is believed to have over 50 million followers in 160 countries.

Another Olympic sport which Asians are expected to dominate is badminton, which made its Olympics debut at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Asian countries won 14 of the 15 medals at the Atlanta Games. Though it originated in Asia more than 200 years ago, badminton is today a popular sport in many European countries, especially Denmark and Britain.

An Asian sport like badminton, where Europeans could also compete with equal distinction may fit IOC's criteria well, but it is a fact that for an Asian traditional sport to globalize it is essential that it gets the Olympic recognition it deserves.

There are many sports in the Olympics in which Asians, who make up over half the world's population, are marginal participants.

At the end of the Sydney Games, it is almost certain that the top 10 places in the medal tally will be dominated by European and North American nations, with possibly China the only Asian representative.

One would arguably ask the question whether this is a true reflection of the sporting prowess and instincts of Asians. Should the world's most populous continent accept this situation passively?

The writer is a lecturer in film and media studies at a polytechnic in Singapore.

-- The Straits Times/Asia News Network