SEOUL -- The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the sixth summer games to be held in Asia, will feature just five new sports. Out of a total 26 sports proposed to the International Olympic Committee for inclusion, only skateboarding, baseball (restored after a 12-year hiatus), surfing, karate and sport climbing made the cut. There is a push, however, to see some traditional Asian team sports such as sepak takraw and kabbadi, included as events the next time the Olympics return to Asia.
These sports are little known internationally but are already familiar sights at the quadrennial Asian Games. There is still a very long jump to the Olympics. Moreover, securing a slot in the Olympics can be expensive, with some sports reportedly paying international public relations agencies up to $500,000 to campaign for inclusion.
If successful, the returns on those investments are clear. Being designated an Olympic sport results not only in a higher profile, more media coverage and increased participation, but also entitles the sport to a share of the IOC's commercial revenue, funding from national Olympic committees, and income from sponsorship and broadcasting deals.
For a new sport to be approved by the IOC for inclusion, which also involves an existing sport to be dropped, it must meet official criteria, outlined as "governed by an International Federation which undertakes to follow the rules of the Olympic Charter, a basic condition for recognition by the IOC. It must also be practiced widely across the world and meet various criteria."
Sepak takraw, or foot volleyball, involves a team of five players kicking a small rattan ball over the net into the opponent's court. It is perhaps the best-placed sport to make the transition from the Asian Games to the Olympic Games. It is already popular across Southeast Asian nations and Asia is also host to other forms of footvolley games, such as jokgu in Korea. Similar sports are played informally on beaches and in parks around the world.
"It's a huge sport in Southeast Asia and especially in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia," Preman Parameswaran, who managed the sepak takraw league for Malaysian broadcaster Astro Sport, told Nikkei Asia. "It is played in all the schools or at least the majority of them and it is part of the [Malaysian] government's plan to popularize sports." He added, "It would be a dream come true for the sport to be played in the Olympics."
Preman believes that the sport needs to become more professionalized if the Olympic dream is ever to be realized. Recent infighting in the governing federation does not help. "The association needs to play a bigger role in developing the sport and there needs to be less politics. The governing body must go through restructuring and have more qualified individuals promoting and developing the sport," he explained.
Abdul Halim Kader, director general of the International Sepak Takraw Federation, said a first step would be to get the sport included in the 2030 Youth Olympics, which is likely to be hosted in Thailand, and build toward the Summer Olympics, perhaps when it returns to Asia. But the ISTF has yet to be recognized as an international federation by the IOC. "We are working toward this. We hope to be recognized within the next four years," said Halim recently. "It is not easy, but our goal is to take sepak takraw from being a village sport to become an Olympic sport."
Another Asian sport being touted is kabbadi, a fast-paced game popular in South Asia where teams of seven try to venture into the opponent's territory and touch as many rivals as possible.
An effective way to catch the attention of the IOC is to include sports that appeal to a new generation of players and viewers such as bicycle motocross, or BMX, skateboarding and surfing. "We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them," explained IOC President Thomas Bach when he announced the new trendy sports that were selected for the Tokyo Olympics.
Potential Olympic sport candidates must keep in mind that the Olympics are a business, said Simon Chadwick, global professor of Eurasian sport at Emlyon Business School in Paris.
"It is up to kabbadi and sepak takraw to establish a business case for their inclusion," he explained. "New sports such as BMX, snowboarding and break dancing reflect the needs and expectations of new generations of consumers. The IOC is trying to incorporate the most popular sports in the world -- in terms of participants, number of elite level athletes and spectators. This brings a broad membership of countries that can compete for medals, which is also important in terms of IOC selling media rights, broadcasting rights, and sponsorship deals."
The importance of popular youth appeal was shown in the selection of break dancing for the 2024 Paris Olympics and skateboarding for the Tokyo Olympics. More traditional sports, such as squash, which has been campaigning for Olympic inclusion since 2000, are having an increasingly difficult time being accepted.
"Skateboarding didn't even have a national governing body when it was chosen as an Olympic sport," former squash star Nick Matthew said. "It shows a massive disconnect from the IOC on the actual infrastructure of the sport. ... We should have been part of the Olympic movement years ago."
Kabbadi's biggest challenge is persuading the IOC that the game is followed to a significant degree outside its South Asian homeland. "Creating a global culture of consumption and participation, or arguing that there is that culture, is really important," said Chadwick.
He added that Olympic sports candidates need a political strategy as well. "You have to get political support within the IOC itself and you have to garner political support among stakeholders that will underpin the numbers game you have to play and those that will popularize the sport -- media, sponsors, governing bodies, national governments too."
It appears that sepak takraw and kabbadi may have a long way to go to achieve their Olympic dreams, but there is still hope that the entire world will one day watch some of Asia's most exciting yet relatively little-known sports.