By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
Our current sports culture has been primarily developed under western societal influences with events like the Olympic Games, collegiate sports in the US and Europe during the Victorian era and the migration of different cultural populations throughout the world that have laid much of the foundation for how sports is defined within our current era. Sport is one of the truly international unifying elements of civilization present in almost all society from the ancient times until today, it is important to acknowledge the truly global cultural contribution that has come to define our current era of sport.
The globalization of sport has advanced much more than the general globalization of our society. As the modern Olympic movement that began in 1896 and continued to grow throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Countries from all over the world sent teams of athletes to take part in the different kinds of sports within the program and the success of the athletes at the Olympics quickly became a point of national pride for the countries who came home with medals. As a result, the Olympic movement quickly began to define a global standard for competitive sports in that the sports contested at the games had to be governed by a strict set of rules to ensure fair competition. Thus, if the countries wanted to be successful at the games, they had to play by the rules of the sport and train their athletes accordingly. Therefore, even today, the rules and culture for different sports ranging from football (soccer), swimming, gymnastics, handball, martial arts, and others are consistent across all nations and cultures. Despite the first games being held in 1896, the Asian continent was not represented in the modern Olympic Games until the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm that an independent Asian nation was represented when Japan entered with two athletes.
This led to the organization of the first “Far Eastern Olympic Games” which was the precursor to the modern day Asian Games and was “opened” on February 4th, 1913 in Malate, Manilla, Philippines. Countries represented include the Philippine Islands, China, Japan, Malaysia (then the British East Indies), Thailand and Hong Kong who competed in nine different Olympic sports and set the stage for more Asian athletes and countries to attend the Olympic Games.
Western interest in Asian sports emerged in the 19th century in correlation with contact, trade and ultimately, colonialism from western cultures throughout Eastern Asia and is based around martial arts. Martial arts in eastern Asia during this time was highly cultural and often rooted in the history, cultural and nationalism of their respective countries. Jujutsu, a Japanese based kind of martial art was first seen in Europe in the mid to late 1890s when a British railway engineer who studied the form returned to England and began teaching it. By the turn of the century, Jujutsu classes were widely taught in countries all throughout Europe, the US and Australia. However, other types of Asian martial arts were relatively unknown until post-WWII when western soldiers stationed in China, Korea and Japan during the Korean War were introduced to and began training in martial arts. That, coupled with representation in media, including Bruce Lee in “The Green Hornet” and the James Bond book and film, “Goldfinger” resulted in a large cultural interest in martial arts including Judo, Karate and Taekwondo. Subsequently, this led to the rise and popularity of martial arts movies which continued to fuel the interest and led to more types of martial arts including Muay Thai, Kung Fu, Krav Maga, Hapkido, Jeet Kune Do (developed and used by Bruce Lee) and Eskrima.
Japan officially became the first Asian country to host the Olympic Games in 1964 in Tokyo and included Judo as the first sport of Asian origin to be included as an official sport. Judo had previously been seen as an informal demonstration sport at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and was demonstrated by Professor Jigoro Kano who was a longtime advocate for the sports inclusion on the Olympic program. While first contested at the Olympics in 1964, Judo was not seen at the 1968 and returned in 1972 where it has been an official Olympic sport ever since. However, women could only participate in Judo as a demonstration sport starting in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul and finally became an official medal event in 1992. Taekwondo made its Olympic debut in as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and became a medal sport in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Karate is poised to make its Olympic debut this summer at the Tokyo Olympics as a medal sport as well.
Outside of martial arts, the sport of Dragon Boat Racing is becoming increasingly popular in the 2000s and 2010s. Originating in Guangdong Province in China, Dragon Boat Racing is popular throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the US. The annual Dragon Boat Festival is held annually every June and includes Dragon Boat Racing, drinking Realgar wine, enjoying foods and activities associated with the number five. Dragon Boat Racing is set to make its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport this summer in Tokyo and will make its first appearance at the 2022 Gay Games in Hong Kong.
As more large scale international multi-sport events are being hosted in Asian countries, including the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World Cup, Asian Games, Gay Games, and others. We will start to see the expansion of sports rooted in traditional Asian cultures emerge in other parts of the world as well. Showing that the impact of Asian culture on western society has and continues to help us all grow stronger, together.