A pageant of the familiar and exotic in sports Athletes of the East compete for 16 days

October 03, 1990|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- The 11th Asian Games that opened here 11 days ago boast a 97-pound Chinese girl who can lift barbells more than twice her weight, a 7-foot-7 North Korean basketball player who has a full-time guide to prevent him from hitting his head on ceiling fixtures, a legless archer from Hong Kong and six Iranian women who compete in shooting while covered from head to toe in their traditional black robes.

But, from a Western perspective, surely the games' most unusual offerings have been the competition in the sports of kabbadi and sepak takraw, both relatively simple, small-group sports of agility and speed that have been played for centuries in rural villages in parts of Asia.

Kabbadi, which originated on the Indian subcontinent, combines elements of the children's game of tag with those of American football in a tense match of quickness, power and strategy.

Sepak takraw, a Southeast Asian sport, resembles volleyball, though it is played with a smaller, hollow ball hit with the feet -- not the hands. Lightning-fast reflexes and acrobatic scissor kicks six feet into the air to spike the ball are its hallmarks.

According to South Asian sports officials, kabbadi and sepak takraw gained medal status for the first time in this Asian Games after some bargaining with China, which insisted on medal competition for its traditional sport, the martial art called Wushu.

The quadrennial Asian Games first were held in New Delhi, India, in 1951, and now draw the attention of sports fans in the third of the globe from the Korean peninsula south to Indonesia and west to the Middle East. Many of the events are being broadcast to other Asian countries, some of which are offering awards worth thousands of dollars to victorious athletes.

The 16-day games have brought more than 3,500 athletes representing 36 countries and the Palestine Liberation Organization to a new but lifeless Asian Games Village in northern Beijing, where they have been housed amid heavy security while competing in 308 events.

But, in Asia, the real business of sports is often politics.

The two Koreas are using the games to fortify their increasing diplomatic contacts with each other; South Korean companies have contributed millions of dollars to the games in hope of opening the door to direct trade with China, and China warmly welcomed a large team from Taiwan for the first time, though the island's athletes are competing under the name of Chinese Taipei.

For China's hard-line rulers, the half-billion dollars spent on the games are providing another opportunity to woo the world back to their doorstep -- and a showcase for China's avowed goal of being Olympics host in 2000.

Preceded by months of frantic preparations here, the Asian Games so far have been without incident, save for a small earthquake just northwest of Beijing on the morning of the opening day, Sept. 22, and claims by officials that a few would-be saboteurs had to be arrested. With the various stadiums among the 30-plus venues packed with Chinese cheerleading squads and selected groups of workers, the games' atmosphere hardly could be described as joyful, however.

At the kabbadi matches last week -- staged at the playground of a physical education college -- several hundred Chinese spectators cheered on cue, but seemed mostly bewildered.

Kabbadi pits two seven-man teams standing on either half of a small dirt court. The match begins by one team sending a "raider" to the other team's side, where he attempts to tag any opposing player and run two or three steps back to his side before he is grabbed or dragged to the ground by the opposition.

The raider must do all this in a single breath while saying aloud, over and over, the nonsense word "kabbadi," effectively limiting the raider to about 40 seconds of athletic dancing on his opponents' side of the court.

The game's formal rules are a little more complex -- in fact, they read as if they were written by a committee of lawyers -- but essentially points are scored when a raider tags an opponent or when the defenders prevent him from returning and he loses his breath.

In one form or another, kabbadi is played by millions of rural children in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"It's the cheapest thing in the world to play -- you only need a speck of land and your undies," said Shah Alam of Bangladesh, (( technical adviser to the Asian Amateur Kabbadi Federation.

India is the reigning power in kabbadi. Though cricket and soccer are more popular on the subcontinent, there are thousands of kabbadi clubs sponsored by companies in India's large cities, and top players are given jobs with banks and the national airline.

In Pakistan, matches commonly precede local gatherings and are accompanied by a martial beating of drums. There, kabbadi is played on a much larger, egg-shaped court, and only one defender can attempt to stop the raider; Pakistanis consider this a more manly version of the sport, as it stresses the power of the raider.

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