September 2, 2000


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Wannabe sports seek share of spotlight

Jeremy Page in Beijing

Stroll through a village in Asia, the world's most populous continent, during Sepak Takrawthe Sydney Olympics and you are less likely to see a soccer or basketball match than a bout of wushu, kabaddi or sepak takraw.

Despite the efforts of multinational sports firms, most of Asia's six billion people are less familiar with mainstream Olympic events than with a group of traditional Asian sports most people in the West have never even heard of.

Now, Asian nations are lobbying to include these events in future Olympic Games to attract wider audiences overseas and give Asia a much-needed boost in the medals table.

From the traditional Chinese martial arts of wushu to sepak takraw, an ancient Southeast Asian game best described as foot volleyball, Asian sports federations have applied for official recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

But the European-dominated IOC, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, refuses to accept sports as medal events without a proven international following, arguing that marginal sports would be monopolised by their nations of origin.

Wushu -- Mandarin Chinese for "martial arts" -- is a case in point, boasting hundreds of millions of fans, but only a handful outside China.

Encompassing more than 300 schools of martial arts, wushu has been China's leading sport for centuries and is practised by old and young all around the nation of 1.3 billion people.

The International Wushu Federation (IWF) formally applied for Olympic recognition last year, and if Beijing's bid to hold the 2008 Olympics is successful, it stands a chance to make its debut as a demonstration sport.

But inclusion as a competitive event is a long way off.

"We need to do better publicity work," said Liu Qingua, 26, a wushu gold medallist at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok. "People either think wushu is about beating up and killing people or just a sort of performance."

"It's actually a very comprehensive and demanding sport," said Liu as teammates at the Shi Shahai Sports School wielded tassled swords and spears, performed flying kung fu kicks and uttered blood-curdling fighting cries.

"Athletics is just about strength and speed. Gymnastics is about balance and beauty. Wushu combines all these things."

Part of the problem is that most wushu events are non-combative, like Taiji -- or shadow-boxing -- where contestants are marked for poise and fluidity of their movements.

So the IWF has added Sanshou -- a fast, full contact sparring event To increase the sports' spectator appeal.

Packaging sports for an international audience is key to boosting sponsorship and lucrative sales of television rights.

And as a spectator sport, few can rival the Southeast Asian obsession of sepak takraw.

The sport of royalty during the early days of the Thai kingdom and Malay sultanate is played by two teams of three with a rattan ball over an elevated net across a badminton-sized court.

But the players use their feet and heads instead of hands or racquets, leaping into the air for acrobatic overhead kicks.

The International Sepak Takraw Federation, based in Thailand, has already begun setting standards for the game to qualify as an Olympic demonstration event.

But the sport, a medal event in the 1998 Asian Games, is unlikely to make it to the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"There's too much argument going on behind the scenes," said Seah Kok Chi, an official of the Olympic Council of Malaysia.

"The Thais want takraw to be like any traditional game, incorporating culture and religion, but we in Malaysia say it should be a neutral," said Seah. "So the debate goes on."

Then there are disputes over the ball.

"It used to be a rattan ball before and now it's a plastic ball," he said. "We've always had problems with the ball."

The ISTF is still divided on whether to reduce the duration of the game, which can last up to three hours.

"Three hours is pretty boring by any standards," Seah said.

Nevertheless, the game's popularity has already spread to South America, with championships held in Puerto Rico and Colombia, making it one of the fastest growing Asian sports.

Perhaps the most exotic Asian sport spreading its wings overseas is kabaddi -- a variation of tag played by millions across southern India and its subcontinental neighbours.

Dating back almost 4,000 years and also known as hututu or chadugudu, kabaddi is played barefoot by two teams of seven on a pitch the size of a badminton court.

One player enters the opposing team's half and tries to tag as many of them as possible while chanting "kabaddi, kabaddi" without taking a breath.

His opponents try to surround him to block his exit without being touched.

The sport, standardised in 1952, made its Asian Games debut in Beijing in 1990. India have dominated the game ever since but six other nations, including Japan and Thailand, entered the event at the 1998 Asiad.

Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) President Jandardhan Singh Gehlot said AKFI would not apply for Olympic recognition until the game caught on in the region.

"Until it spreads in Asia it cannot go beyond," he said. "Our heart is there."

"China and Japan have started playing and we hope for Korea too. We will make efforts later (for the Olympics)."

However, a lack of state sponsorship and the perception of the sport as an unsophisticated rustic game puts it low down the list of potential Olympic events.

Among the frontrunners for Olympic inclusion in Athens is Thai boxing, or muay thai in the local tongue.

Colonel Amnart Pooksrisuk, secretary-general of the Amateur Muaythai Association of Thailand says he hopes the sport will make its debut as a demonstration sport in 2004.

But even for that, a sport must be played in at least 75 nations on four continents, Thai sports officials say.

So far, there are 69 country members of the Bangkok-based International Federation of Muaythai Amateurs (IFMA).

While sports such as muay thai are finding growing markets overseas, others like Japanese sumo wrestling desperately need Olympic recognition to survive the onset of mass-marketed Western sports such as soccer and basketball.

The Tokyo-based International Sumo Federation has applied for IOC recognition and is aiming to have sumo included in 2008.

Sumo has become more international in recent years -- two of the three current "Yokozuna" grand champions foreign-born, one in Hawaii, the other in Samoa.

But the sport remains highly conservative and reluctant to open its doors further to overseas competitors, a key requirement for Olympic qualification.

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