Thais digging in to keep an Asian game at the Asian Games

Thais digging in to keep an Asian game at the Asian Games
Thailand's Anuwat Chaichana, left, kicks a ball against Lao's Kantana Nanthisen during men's sepak takraw team doubles final match at the 18th Asian Games in Palembang, Indonesia, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

PALEMBANG, Indonesia (AP) — Of the Asian games at the Asian Games, sepaktakraw should get some billing as a festival event.

With origins in rural southeast Asian provinces — several countries lay claim to creating it — sepaktakraw is like an aerial soccer or hands-free volleyball where players can use their feet, knees, heads, elbows or shoulders to propel a woven, synthetic ball. No hands.

The name of the game is a literal translation. Proponents explain that it’s a combination of languages with “sepak” coming from the term used for kick in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and “takraw” being the Thai word for the woven ball.

While the acrobatic, overhead kicks and athletic, somersaulting leaps to the height of the net are eye-catching, the sport’s place on the Asian Games program is far from secure.

At the 2018 Games being co-hosted in Jakarta and Palembang, only eleven countries entered the team regu — or team of teams — competition.

With the next Asian Games travelling to China, there has been speculation sepaktakraw will be cut from the program.

Understandably, that notion has not been well received in Thailand, winner of the first three gold medals in this tournament.

“This is one of the sports that really shows the athleticism and it is really exciting to watch,” Sakha Siriwat, gold-medal winner in the team regu, said. “It is very thrilling and also it’s a sport with such a long heritage, so it should not be dropped.

“It’s a very exciting sport to watch.”

Thailand coach Kamol Tankimhong sounded confident sepaktakraw would be retained for the continental Olympic-style games, which attract more than 11,000 athletes in 40 sports.

“We have great confidence in the international federation, and the Asian federation — they are working hard so that we raise the awareness of the sport,” Tankimhong said.

Sepaktakraw is played by groups of two or three who try to score points by hitting the takraw above the net and into the court about the size of a badminton space as the opposing players attempt to block.

The atmosphere was electric as Thailand beat arch rivals Malaysia in the opening men’s team regu, a rivalry that has lasted decades.

Malaysia swept all the gold medals in 1990 and 1994 but Thailand has dominated the event ever since.

After the Thai men won the team regu here, Thailand’s women beat South Korea for gold in the team event. Vietnam and Myanmar took bronze.

On Saturday, Thailand won the men’s team doubles over Laos, while Indonesia and Japan picked up bronze medals.

There are three more finals on the program.

The Singapore-based International Sepaktakraw Federation has members from 31 national associations and oversees all disciplines, including the game adapted to the beach.

“Wherever it has taken root, Sepaktakraw enjoys cult status,” the ISTAF says on its website. “Southeast Asia may be the birthplace of the sport and the stage for its greatest champions, but an enormous variety of regional tournaments and domestic events have sprung up around the globe.

“From the Sepaktakraw Swiss Open and the Chicken’s Cup in Germany … the proliferation of competition has grown the talent pool substantially.”

Siriwat, who has won gold medals at three Asian Games, is hopeful the performances in Palembang help the sport keep its place on the program.

“It will be a sad occasion if it is not in the Asian Games anymore,” he said. “I would feel sad for the younger generation. I won’t be able to show the world how Takraw is played or how it is supposed to be played.”