Photo credit: Anan Amri, Flickr, C.C.
Sepak takraw is basically 3-player kick volleyball. I first encountered this sport while backpacking in Laos. I was wandering around a village, which is about all there is to do in Laos most of the time, when I came across a friendly match being played in a small vacant lot. Several ordinary Laotian teens were putting on a dazzling display of bicycle kicks and toe saves, to the cheers of a small but appreciative crowd. Nearly every villager who passed by stopped to watch for a few minutes before moving on.
I was quite stunned by the players’ ability to keep the ball in play for long rallies despite a high number of super-fast spikes. In my opinion, this game makes regular volleyball look a bit babyish, being able to use your hands and all. Sepak takraw is a sport that delights spectators with a constant stream of spectacular kicks.
Having lived in Asia for several years since then, I have seen and read more about sepak takraw, occasionally even seeing it on TV . It is popular in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Puerto Rico and Colombia. It is one of the highlights of the Asian Games, and always popular with fans because it is fun to watch – live, on TV or in slow motion. It has been bothering me for many years now that this very cool sport isn’t yet in the Olympics. My wish is not unique. In the past, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister has called for Olympic inclusion. Unfortunately, there appears to be no serious movement to make this a reality.
I was reminded of this while mourning Taiwan’s poor showing in baseball at the Beijing Olympics. There may never be another chance for Taiwan to really shine in this sport on the world stage because baseball and softball were voted out of the 2012 Games in London during a 2005 vote of the IOC -- the first sports to be eliminated by the IOC since polo was axed in 1936. And, according to Wikipedia, the trend lately has been to avoid “demonstration sports,” though local organizing committees may be free to include them in future games. Beijing introduced the martial art wushu this year, but for some reason it wasn’t allowed to be called a demonstration sport.
But demonstration sports weren’t a bad thing, were they? Some very popular new events arose from the old policy of demonstration sport nurturing. Taekwondo, for example, is very popular with Olympic fans, and it adds a certain international flair to the games. Badminton was a demonstration sport in Seoul 1988, alongside taekwondo and bowling. Some sports, like snowboarding, were introduced without any demonstration stage at all. And some, like synchronized swimming, synchronized diving and beach volleyball, are new events that appear to my eyes to be more recreation than sport. (Say, wasn’t there even talk of Olympic ballroom dancing once?)
Sepak takraw is growing fast in popularity and fame around the world. It is probably played in enough countries to justify including it in the Olympics as a demonstration sport. Although it isn’t yet well known outside of Southeast Asia, I think it would be soon enough if it were given Olympic credibility. The sport can sell itself. Just search YouTube to see the fast-paced action for yourself. Western countries should be able to field reasonably competitive teams even in the first year.
A few problems need to be worked out first. Matches can take up to 3 hours, for example. But if the I.O.C. has any sense, it will follow up on its past good judgment, and invite sepak takraw to follow in the footsteps of taekwondo. What makes a sport suitable for the Olympics? This is surely a subjective matter. Personally, I say baseball can be fairly let go, but I think softball should stay. Baseball doesn’t need the Olympics and the Olympics don’t need baseball. But millions more people play softball than baseball, and the Olympics is a highlight event for them.
It is the spirit of the Olympics that is important – bringing cultures and nations together in sport. And by this argument, bringing sepak takraw onboard would be a step in the right direction. The Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius means "Swifter, Higher, Stronger." These three adjectives apply so obviously to sepak takraw that I think it silly to leave this wonderful sport from Southeast Asia out to languish in obscurity.
Accordingly, I have set up an online petition to lobby for inclusion of sepak takraw in the Olympics. I hope you will consider signing it.