How Kabaddi Hooked the World

Kabbadi, players, match
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Kabaddi, Tamil Nadu's ancient sport is making a comeback in Japan, Korea and Iran. Has this rural Indian sport gone global?

It’s been lonely at the top of the Kabaddi world for India, and Ejjapureddi Prasad Rao knew this all too well. As kabaddi’s top coach, he’s guided Indian players to win 60 gold medals in international tournaments for the sport. The Asian Games introduced Kabaddi as a category in 1990, and India has won the top spot ever since. But asides from other South Asian nations, the sport had no other international presence – nor a slot in the Olympics.

‘Kabaddi’ Rao knew no sport can survive when only one country is good at it. So he started travelling the world, raising Kabaddi teams from scratch in other nations, in a bid to get more countries hooked on the sport. He went to South Korea in 2001 and scoured for talent at the sporting city of Busan. “Those who are not doing very good in other sports, we got them to kabaddi. They were already physically fit, so it was easy for us to train them with our requirements,” says Rao.

Till 2014, he trained the South Korean national team, before handing the mantle over to Jaiveer Sharma. Over the years, Indian coaches have been in demand to coach other countries’ national teams, such as M.J. Sunder Ram (Japan), K. Ganesh (Poland) or K.C. Suthar (Iran).

Before 2000, none of these countries had Kabaddi teams. By 2014, Iran had faced India in two Asian Games finals – beating Bangladesh and Pakistan for the number two spot in international Kabaddi. The sport’s biggest upset came in 2016 when South Korea beat India in the very first match of the Kabaddi World Cup. And if you catch an episode of the popular Japanese anime ‘Gintama’ or ‘Full Metal Panic’, you might catch a scene of the sport casually included as a part of Japanese sporting life.

Today, Rao eyes taking the sport to the highest level of international sport. “We’ve already submitted all our papers to the International Olympic Committee, and I was asked to present our issue.”

In the meantime, more and more countries have been sending him inquiries about Kabaddi, asking for CDs of matches, ostensibly so they can improve their techniques. But it’s not just the chance for an international sporting glory that makes players want to get in on the action.

A league of its own

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Image: E.P. Rao
Kabaddi has a long history, dating back to ancient Tamil Nadu. The early twentieth century saw kabaddi get formalized and developed as a recognized sport, getting its most major international break at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – where it was first demonstrated to a global audience. It was not included as a part of the competition, but Adolf Hitler handed the Indian team a medal on their departure. Since independence and the division of the subcontinent, it’s remained popular among the South Asian nations, even becoming Bangladesh’s national sport. The Indian diaspora abroad also kept it alive, prompting the British Army to use it as a recruitment tool.

In India, it was long considered a rural sport. You didn’t need expensive equipment, fancy fields or too many rules to play – just a sandy arena, one side with seven players against the other with one – the raider. The raider must hold his breath, cross over to the other team’s side, tag one or more of their players and return in a single piece. If the tagged players don’t manage to hold the raider down, they’re out. To prove that the raider is holding his breath, he chants ‘kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi’ continuously while making his raid. If he’s caught and held down, he’s out – and replaced in the next round.

It’s the chanting that makes the game so evocative of childhood, as for many who went to Indian schools, childhood was the last place they played it in. It wasn’t a viable career option – even gold-winning players had to be secured government jobs for a livelihood. However, the rise of the Indian Premier League in T20 cricket changed everything.

The IPL had transformed into a $4.16 billion sporting event in eight years, and showed the way for private sports leagues to make a mark on the Indian audience. In 2014, the Pro Kabaddi League launched – and quickly became the second most-watched sport on TV after cricket. It’s no small feat for the sport, and Kabaddi players slowly emerged as household names.

One name stands out from the rest – Jang Kun Lee, of the Bengal Raiders. A South Korean raider, he got his introduction to Kabaddi in the 2002 Asian games held in Busan, a city famous for its sporting culture. At the time, there were no Kabaddi clubs in Korea. By 2014, there were 45, according to Jang in an interview with a sports publication. It was his attacking skills that clinched the match for South Korea against India in 2016, where he scored more bonus points than the entire Indian side.

India went on to win the world cup, beating Iran in the finals. But for players like Jang or Meraj Sheykh, being more famous in India than in their home countries is its own thrill.

The Pro Kabaddi League started in 2014 with an unseen amount of eyeballs for the sport – 66 million viewers tuned in to watch the inaugural match – more than twenty times the number from India who watched the Olympics opening ceremony in 2016. By one month, the league had become the second most-watched sport in the country – with 435 million viewers for the league in total.

Rao’s plan for including Kabaddi at the Olympics isn’t unlikely – the World Kabaddi federation already has 48 national affiliates, and the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup saw 12 nations participate, the United States included. India’s nine gold medals in the Olympics so far is in contrast to her performance in international kabaddi – gold in all seven editions of the Asian Games, and all seven of the South Asian games, as well as the top spot in all three Kabaddi world cups. The inclusion of the sport at the Olympics would also help the national plan to get 50 Olympic medals by 2024 – but it wouldn’t be a good Olympics without fierce competition.

If India wants her ancient sport to become truly global, she’ll need to train her competition to try to beat her at it.

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