by S.T. Arasu
The future of kabaddi lies beyond the shores of India and South Asia. While the game enjoys religious fervency in the region, growth in other parts of the world is of utmost importance for the survival of the sport.
Kabaddi made its first appearance as an exhibition sport at the 1982 and became an Asian Games event since 1990 in Beijing, China.
After almost 40 years since being introduced and three decades since gaining a medal sport status at the Asiad, kabaddi has seen scant movement for its inclusion in any of the other continental of major global multi-sport events.
The Jakarta Games in 2016 was the first time that a dozen countries participated at the Asiad. These despite the fact that teams do not need to qualify to earn a spot at the Games.
For the founders of the game, India were contend in constantly winning the gold at the Asian Games. And for fans in India, the Asian Games was seen as the ultimate crown in the sports.
Since the inclusion of kabaddi as a medal sport in 1990, the Indian were untouchable and in turn created an aura of invincibility that was celebrated with pomp every four years.
But, the dominance was shattered when the Iranians defeated the Indians enroute to winning both the men’s and women’s gold medals in Jakarta. Coupled with defeats to the Koreans in the men’s preliminary stages, the once feared Indian’s were made to look ordinary.
The tremors of the defeat was felt around the kabaddi playing nations, believing for the first time that they too can dream of winning against the powerhouses.
There is absolutely no reason as to why other nations cannot excel in the sport.
Remember, while football originated in England, it was the Brazilian who invented the Ginga, it was the Dutch who created total football and the Spaniards who perfected the Tiki-taka.
World Kabaddi now has numerous new kabaddi playing countries outside Asia, each with the potential of being a future world beater. Each capable of emulating what the Brazilians, the Dutch and the Spaniards did with football in kabaddi.
The future champions of kabaddi could be New Zealand or Egypt or Cyprus, or Mexico or maybe Brunei. Anything is possible, nothing is impossible in sports.
The ten year strategic plan adopted by the World Kabaddi at its Congress two years ago, is to empower new countries to promote and develop the game in a more cohesive and professional manner.
This is not something that can be achieved overnight and certainly not by just dishing out free tickets for teams to participate in invitational tournaments.
International tournaments are crucial to look at the progress made by teams against their rivals and also bring honour to their respective countries. It is also vital for the branding of the sport as well as to hone the tools for marketing and sponsorship.
But all this comes to a naught, if no proper development of the sport at the national level is made while participation at international tournaments becomes the only priority.
One sport that originates from the middle east, has been offering free flight, board and lodging for teams from around the world to participate in their world championships for several years now.
The gesture has been taken up gleefully by countries but apart from participating at the “free” tournaments year-in, year-out, hardly much was achieved in terms of proper development of the sport in many of these countries.
This is a trap that kabaddi cannot afford to similarly fall into.
Member countries must first show their earnestness in promoting the sport by at least by having a proper grassroot development plan and long term elite plans.
Nothing is gained by picking a rag-tag team at the eleventh hour for the sake of taking part in a tournament, just because everything is paid for.
Development is just not about training a handful of players in one city with absolutely nothing happening with the sports elsewhere in the country. Development is about pools of players coming from all corners of the country. Development is not about the players alone but also in creating qualified coaches and technical officials.
Development is not about a handful of officials keeping a stranglehold on the power and positions in the organization past their own expiry dates, but to allow those capable to take the leadership mantle.
In a decade or two, kabaddi may be in a strong position to stake a claim to be an Olympic sport. But the future of the sports has to be written by taking the game beyond its founders.
Football was not the only sport to have originated in England but perfected by others. Table-tennis, or ping pong as it was originally known, was founded in England but is now dominated by the Chinese.
The modern game of field hockey was also developed in England, but it was the likes of India and Pakistan that perfected the sport. With the advent of artificial field, the Australians, especially, have been dominant.
Similarly, the sport of kabaddi is ripe to see a transformation by the pretenders to the Indian throne. Iran and South Korea have taken the first move and perhaps another country can move it a further notch.
There is no doubt that kabaddi enjoys unbridled support from fans and sponsors in India. Professional leagues in the nation feeds the frenzied hunger of the local supporters more than actually helping to fuel the growth of the sport outside India.
The token foreign players invited to these tournaments are more often than not, have been mere window dressings. They were just garnish and served mostly as decorations and embellishments in the tournaments.
Television viewership outside India had dropped drastically over the years for these leagues, because it was seen more as a showcase of Indian kabaddi instead of international kabaddi.
When kabaddi made its debut at the Asian Games, another regional sports was also given the same status. But like kabaddi, the South-East Asian sport of sepak-takraw has also been unable to elevate their status much beyond Asia.
Both sports have similar problems. Kabaddi is hugely popular in South Asia while sepak-takraw is hugely popular in South East Asia. While sports are played in more countries now, neither sports have made much headway in creating better nationalized set-ups outside their powerbases.
This is one aspect that World Kabaddi has been emphasizing over the past couple of years. Without a strong basement, the building will always be a low-rise structure.
The creation of stronger national teams, home grown heroes in each member county would in turn create a bigger interest in the sport.
Kabaddi is also known as the Game of Warriors, but to live up to its moniker the sport needs wider representation and stronger oppositions.
In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man rules. There is absolutely nothing gained if the sports is only dominated by only a handful of countries, and that too only from Asia.
As it is now, the top five countries in Asia would still take apart the top teams from any of the other continents.
How are we going to correct this imbalance? By empowering these countries with better knowledge of the game and coaches would be one of the first steps.
Merely sending coaches from India or other top South Asian teams to these countries to prepare their national teams just before a major competition are but short term solutions.
Local coaches must be empowered to take over this task effectively and quickly.
The World Kabaddi Technical and Development Commissions have been entrusted to chart and help nations implement long term development plans.
With a concerted effort the game of kabaddi can grow to greater heights.
World Kabaddi’s recent affiliation with The Association For International Sport for All (TAFISA) may be dismissed by some as menial and trivial. However, it is far from it.
The membership allows us to touch base with sports administrators from many countries where kabaddi is an unknown sport. It gives World Kabaddi the opportunity not only to expand further but also create a new competitive platform for the sport as well as much need exposure beyond Asia.
Perhaps from the exposure gained, we are able to make headways in getting kabaddi into other regional Games be it the African Games or the European Games in the future.
But again we also need more countries in each of these regions to take up the game seriously.
Kabaddi was included in the Asian Games primarily because the previous Secretary General of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) was an Indian and he was able to swing the votes to get the sport the much needed status.
Less than 50% of the 47 Asian countries play the sport even after three decades of inclusion at the Asian Games.
China, despite having hosted the Games twice during the period have never participated in kabaddi. Whether they will participate at the Hangzhou Games in 2022 also remain to be seen.
The number of countries playing kabaddi in relation to the total number of countries in each of the remaining continents are less than 30 percent.
No sport is going to gain Olympic, Commonwealth or global status without a strong structure globally.
No sport is going to grow at the international level when locally the game is in doldrums.
No sport is going to be popular without the creation of heroes in every nook and corners.
Kabaddi needs its own Ronaldo, Roger Federer, Lewis Hamilton, Tiger Woods, Serena Wiliams or a Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a truly international icon and star recognized even by the non-kabaddi enthusiasts.
The future of kabaddi lies beyond the shores of India and Asia and it is a truth that we have to acknowledge for the sake of kabaddi.
The game is bigger than any individual – player, coach, technical official, administrators -, any country or any one of us.
ONE VISION! ONE DREAM! ONE KABADDI!
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