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Number 1 Shimbun

Asian Sports That Should Be in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics


This month, the IOC must decide which sports to add

to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic schedule.

Japan obviously is cheering for baseball.

There are a few other Asian sports that should be considered –

but very likely won’t be.


by Todd Crowell
illustrations by Andrew Pothecary




Highly popular in India, Bangladesh and Iran, Kabaddi is an indoor sport in which two teams send “raiders” into the opposing side and win points by tagging opposition players. It may have peaked as a global sport in 1936 when it was a demonstration sport at the Berlin Olympics. There is already a Kabaddi World Cup, invariably won by the Indian team.*




Although the differences are fairly subtle to those not schooled in the martial arts, sport ju-jitsu is not the same as judo. Its practitioners insist it is a separate sport altogether and should be recognized as such. Ju-jitsu has deep roots in Japan, going back at least to the fighting techniques of 16th-century samurai warriors. (Judo evolved from ju-jitsu at a later date.) Both disciplines manipulate an opponent by using their force against them, but judo puts more emphasis on throws. It was a demonstration sport in the 2009 Asian Games.



Dragonboat Racing  

A team paddling sport with ancient pedigree – though it has become popular only in the past two or three decades. It got its boost in Hong Kong where the annual Dragonboat Festival in mid-summer is a major event, with dozens of contests held along the coastline. The boats are richly decorated, usually with a dragon head at the front and a dragon tail at the rear. It differs from crew in that the contestants use paddles, not oars, and the coxswain beats cadence with a drum.*



Muay Thai

This is what most of the world calls Thai boxing. In addition to gloved fists, Thai boxers kick with their bare feet. The fighter utilizes punches, elbows, knee strikes, in all about eight legal points of contact that are mostly prohibited in regular boxing. Thailand’s most important 19th century monarch, King Chulalongkorn, took a personal interest in the sport, helped boost its popularity and established its rules. A favorite for movies featuring various martial arts stars.*




This is a little unfair as Xiangqi is a board game, which are not played in the Olympics. But it is a medal sport in the Asian Games where it is one of three recognized board games; the other two are chess and weiqi (igo in Japanese). It is literally called the “elephant game” in Mandarin; the animal is featured on some of the pieces (and is known in the West as Chinese chess). It is a two-person strategy game, popular throughout the Chinese world and Vietnam. It is played with round disks, and the object is to capture the king. The Asian Xiangqi Federation bestows the title of grandmaster. A World Mind Sports Games Championship, a kind of cerebral Olympics, and which features Xianqi, began in 2008.*



Sepak takraw

Popular in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, the term Sepak takraw comes from the Malay for “kick” and the Thai for “ball.” Takraw is similar to volleyball as it is playedwith a net, but it is also similar to soccer in that players (save for the server) cannot use their hands. The sport requires great agility, with players sometimes doing a full flip after spiking the ball. Origins of the sport go back centuries in Thailand, which hosts the annual world championship.*




Pétanque is a variation of bowls, in which players stand in a circle and throw a metal ball to a small wooden one. It is mainly a French game, but it is played in parts of Southeast Asia – especially Laos and Vietnam – because of past colonial influence. The 2007 World Pétanque Championship was held in Pattaya, Thailand, and it is part of the Asian Games.*




Literally, “martial arts,” in Mandarin. It is now considered a competitive sport on par with other offshoots originating from martial arts such as judo or taekwondo, and it is said to be China’s most popular sport. The rules were codified in the early years of the People’s Republic as basically a judged sport, where the players are graded on various moves, kicks and throws. The International Wushu Federation organizes the World Wushu Championship tournament held every two years. Efforts to make wushu an Olympic sport have not been successful so far, but there is a head of steam behind it, which makes wushu the mostly likely non-Japanese prospect on this list to be approved.*




An umbrella term for a variety of competitive martial arts forms that have evolved in Malaysia and Indonesia (where it is called Pencak Silat). There are, in fact, more than a hundred known silat styles in the region, some involving the use of bladed weapons such as the kris. It is a recognized sport in the Asian and Southeast Asian Games.*




Aside from vistas of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and sushi, nothing says “Japan” so much as sumo. Two behemoths enter the ring, psych each other out and then spring forward, grappling and pushing until one of them falls or is pushed outside the ring. It is over in a few seconds. It has never caught on globally aside from occasional foreign exhibitions and isn’t even in the Asian Games. But it has become a kind of international sport with the influx of foreign wrestlers, led in the 1980s by Hawaiian-born Konishiki, the first foreign ozeki, and Akebono, the first foreign yokozuna, or grand champion. Mongolians currently dominate even though professional sumo is not played in Mongolia.

* Played in the Asian Games

Todd Crowell is the author of the Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language.


Published in: September 2015

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