Volleyball, With a Kick: The Esoteric World of the Asian Games
The non-Olympic sports on display in the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea include not only cricket and the popular martial art of karate, but also two sports that have yet to make any appreciable dent in the Western consciousness: kabaddi and sepaktakraw.
In terms of content, the Asian Games that open Friday in Incheon, South Korea, will be bigger than a Summer Olympics.
The 2012 London Olympics had 302 events in 26 sports. In Incheon, athletes will compete in 439 events in 36 sports and disciplines, and the additional content is part of what makes the Asian Games truly Asian.
The non-Olympic sports on display in South Korea include not only cricket and the popular martial art of karate, but also two sports that have yet to make any appreciable dent in the Western consciousness: kabaddi and sepaktakraw. (Also read: Zero tolerance for sexual harassment at Asian Games)
Kabaddi, a team contact sport developed in and dominated by India, was played this year in a new professional league in India that attracted big audiences. Sepaktakraw, a Southeast Asian game dominated by Thailand that combines volleyball and soccer, started a Grand Prix format in 2011, the ISTAF SuperSeries, in an attempt to reach new markets. But for now the sport remains a spectacular regional diversion.
"It's as close as any ball sport will ever get to a martial art," said Drew Lilley, a British-Swiss with dual nationality who is one of sepaktakraw's leading (and only) English-language television analysts. "But with martial arts, you think quite violent, while this is just the beauty of sailing through the air, making perfect contact with the ball with a foot and then landing on the wrists and springing back up and doing it again."
A first look can indeed be jaw-dropping. Consider how much excitement a bicycle kick generates in a soccer game. Now consider that this happens constantly in sepaktakraw as the competitors leap and, with an overhead kick, spike the small ball over a net that is set at a height of 1.55 meters (about 5 feet) for men and 1.45 meters for women.
But the novelty diminishes as the match progresses, in part because the team that receives serve often capitalizes by ending the point with its first smash.
"It's often one of those sports where you see it for two minutes and go, 'This is absolutely amazing!' and then flick the channel to something else," Lilley said. "It's not as good as the highlight reel would make it out to be, but then what sport is?"
Lilley insisted that the major-injury toll was low, which is hard to believe considering the sport's contortionist bent and high-impact landings.
"I've seen some knee injuries, but nowhere near what you'd expect," Lilley said. "These guys and women are so well trained and spend so much time stretching - literally two to three hours a day of stretching exercises. And you hardly see a player in the sport who weighs in at more than 150 pounds."
"But whatever the build, you have to be incredibly flexible and light on your feet," he added.
Breath control is the essential skill for success in kabaddi, a game with ancient roots in which teams take turns sending a raider across midcourt who, on a single breath, tries to tag a member of the opposing team and return safely to his team's half of the court before taking another breath. To prove to officials that he or she is not inhaling, the raider must chant "kabaddi, kabaddi" throughout the attack. The best players can do it for several minutes.
Kabaddi's rules would seem irredeemably arcane until one learns that 435 million Indian television viewers watched the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League during its inaugural five-week run this year. Or that the league's final attracted, for however brief a duration, 86 million Indian viewers, surpassing the tallies for the 2014 World Cup and the Wimbledon finals.
Cricket bats are not yet trembling nationwide. That sport remains the undisputed king of the Indian sporting landscape, but kabaddi did surprisingly prove that other local options can make a dent.
"Kabaddi was a signal of our commitment to fostering a truly multisport culture in India by taking a nearly forgotten game and transforming it into a contemporary offering," Uday Shankar, the chief executive of Star India, a media and entertainment company, told India's Business Standard newspaper. "The fact that it now has the overwhelming support of people brings us great pride."
South Koreans seem to feel differently. Ticket sales have been tepid for kabaddi at the 17th Asian Games, and the sport continues to be India's domain.
India has won all six of the men's gold medals since kabaddi was introduced to the Asian Games in 1990. And it won the gold medal in 2010 when women's kabaddi made its debut at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.
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