The Uniquely Southeast Asian Sport of Sepak Takraw
Sepak takraw may have been around since the 15th century, but it’s no forgotten relic. Find out more about the history of this fast-growing sport – and its bid for Olympic recognition
Text and photos Lee Jian Wei
Sepak takraw – also known as kick volleyball – has always been a regular feature of the Asian Games. Its origins are hotly contested among nine Southeast Asian states, each with its own regional variation and claims to its true inception, but there is general agreement that the sport was first introduced to the region by the Chinese, who had a similar military exercise involving players keeping shuttlecocks airborne with just their feet.
The earliest record of sepak takraw in Southeast Asia is in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), which describes a 15th-century game in the royal court involving one player hitting another with a kicked rattan ball. Eighteenth-century murals in Bangkok’s Phra Kaeo Temple also depict the Hindu god Hanuman playing sepak takraw with a group of monkeys. In 1835, Thailand included a volleyball net in gameplay, and in 1945, Malaysia introduced the badminton court and net. But it was not until the impending inclusion of sepak takraw as a medal sport at the 1965 South East Asian Peninsular Games (now known as the SEA Games) in Kuala Lumpur that the Southeast Asian states were forced to agree on an official name and single set of rules for their common game. They christened it sepak takraw: sepak means “kick” in Malay, while takraw means “woven ball” in Thai – the two countries had the strongest claims to the origins of the sport. Coupled with upgrading of the traditional rattan ball to a plastic ball (the latter does not have a nasty tendency to splinter), the game grew immensely popular. Today, it is Malaysia’s national sport.
Playing on a modified badminton doubles court, athletes primarily use gravity-defying kicking techniques and airborne manoeuvres to spike the ball into the opponent’s side. Like soccer, the use of hands is prohibited.
Though matches for sepak takraw have largely remained regional – Asiad being its biggest sporting platform – this quintessentially Southeast Asian discipline might soon be upgraded to the Olympic level. “With the continuing growth of the sport around the globe, the International Sepak Takraw Federation (ISTAF) is confident that in the near future, sepak takraw will be recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC),” says ISTAF secretary-general, Abdul Halim Kader.
It was reported in 2016 that the IOC had invited the ISTAF to submit an application for the sport to be included in the Olympics lineup, with the federation aiming to do so by 2017. Previously, sepak takraw also found its way into the 1998 Commonwealth Games as a demonstration event.
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For other stories from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 131, 2018