For many sports fans, life is measured out in four-year milestones provided by the Football World Cup, the Olympics, or – in my case – the Rugby World Cup. We can reel off the years, locations, and winners, and we can often recall where we were at the time and what we were doing. And then there are the more disposable – or at least less memorable – sporting events like the Asian Games. Can anyone name the year and host city for the last Asian Games? No, how about the next Games? (Answers: Incheon, South Korea in 2014, Jakarta and Palembang in 2018.)
The relative obscurity of the Asian Games in the twenty-first century, however, hides an interesting and influential past. In Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913-1974 German historian Stefan Huebner describes how regional sporting events helped shape Asian nationalisms. Huebner, currently a Research Fellow at the University of Singapore, structures the book is a chronological order, with one chapter for each Games. The story begins in Manila with the first Far Eastern Championship Games and ends in 1974 with the seventh Asian Games hosted by Tehran. In between we visit India, Indonesia, Thailand, and China.
The first chapter, “Muscular Christianity and the ‘Western Civilizing Mission’,” is a fascinating look at how sports were part of the American colonial project in the Philippines. I’d not been aware of the strong connection between Christianity and sports in Asia, and in particular the prominent role of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
Missionary groups and colonial administrations viewed sporting success not only as a triumph of physical strength and endurance but also of moral education and social reform. Sporting competitions were to shape a ‘new Asian man’ and later a ‘new Asian woman’ by promoting internationalism, egalitarianism and economic progress, all serving to direct a “rising” Asia toward modernity. Over time, exactly what constituted a “rising” Asia underwent remarkable changes, ranging from the YMCA’s promotion of muscular Christianity, democratization, and the social gospel in the US-colonized Philippines to Iranian visions of recreating the Great Persian Empire.
Huebner is excellent at showing the political motivations and conflicts that shaped the various Games. It is a little disappointing, however, to learn how thoroughly political these events were, and how self-interested the host nations were. The 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, for example, were all about showcasing the city as being up to the challenge of hosting the 1960 Summer Olympics. The 1962 Asian Games in Indonesia were used by Surkano to cement his position as world leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (read: communism lite), which he did by not inviting Israel and the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan).
Cold War politics also flavored the next Asian Games, with Bangkok in 1966 promoting a strongly anti-communism message of the monarchy and the military.
At first glance, the final chapter on the 1974 Games in Tehran seems slightly out of place. However, it’s one of the most interesting chapters and certainly the most bizarre story in the book. Iran was awash with oil dollars and its authoritarian ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah, had visions of showcasing the grandeur of the imperial family and his newly modernized nation.
With hundreds of millions of petrodollars spent on them, the Tehran Games significantly outclassed all the previous games. Hosted on an Olympic scale, they were meant to support Iran’s aspiration of bringing the Olympic Games to Tehran and thus becoming the second Asian country— following Japan—to host them. Simultaneously, they served the project of Iranian-led region building. Iran could put itself symbolically into the lead within Asia by sponsoring the visits to Tehran of teams from small countries and of various Asian dance and culture groups. Finally, the Games were, like the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, a mega event used to construct and propagate a new Iranian great power identity after the country’s economic situation improved during the White Revolution and the first Oil Crisis. The lighting of the torch, images on the scoreboard and the colored placards, the name of the sports complex, and official reverence during the ceremonies put the royal family at the center of the Games. Their personality cult portrayed them as the ones responsible for bringing Iran back to ‘ancient glory’ and parity with the West, whose superiority was nothing but a temporary aberration of history. The facilities and technology used were the most advanced, meant to illustrate that Iran had successfully turned into one of the most modern and developed countries in the world.
Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913-1974 is published by the National University of Singapore Press. The writing is academic, with both the good and bad which follows from that; it’s detailed, draws on numerous sources, and is competently written, yet rather dry. It lacks narrative punch and will disappoint anyone looking for stories about the athletes and competition highlights. The variety of the case studies makes for interesting content, but the book suffers from an overlong conclusion. All in all, I can’t recommend it for the general reader. Still, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the history of regional sports events in Asia. In particular, I think journalists covering any sports-related stories in the region should read the book; you’ll come away with an enhanced background knowledge and also a few fascinating leads for possible stories.