By: Suresh Nair
LIKE ‘Speedy Gonzales’, Abdul Halim Kader is zipping the four continents on an unending spree to promote a rattan ball.
His passion for sepak takraw is endearingly infectious and his longer-term dream to make it an Olympic event is his ultimate goal.
Some say it’s like going up the Everest in the Himalayas with hands tied behind the back but he’s not discouraged as he hopes to make the Asean-based sport reach out to be a globally popular family entertainment.
Sepak takraw, for the uninitiated, is best described as a form of foot-volleyball using a small rattan ball and it is widely played in South-east Asia. The game is best known for its gravity-defying high-kicks near the centre-net to get the ball into the opponent’s half.
The name is a marriage of the Malay word “sepak” (literally meaning “kick” or “smash”) and the Thai word “takraw” (the original rattan ball used in the sport). Played on a rectangular court which is of similar size to a badminton court and with a net suspended in the middle, the fundamental rules are simple, with the objective being to deliver the ball over the net into your opponent’s’ court, and try to make it un-returnable.
Got it? It is played similarly to volleyball but players use their feet, knee, chest and head to carry a rattan ball over the net. It is a spectator sport that contains elements of volleyball, football, martial arts and gymnastics.
Recognised as a jewel in the crown of the South-east Asian Games (SEA Games) since its introduction 50 years ago, the game is played in 30 countries, which is slightly way below the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) requirement of 50 nations.
But the International Sepak Takraw Federation (ISTAF) formed in 1988, where Halim is the secretary-general, plans to meet this shortfall within two years.
Halim is a “rattan ball” hero of sorts. He’s now like a Speedy Gonzales-styled global sporting ambassador and plans to personally take the rattan-ball to every nook and corner of the four continents, from the Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and planting its seeds in the Middle East, the Americas and Europe, as well as establishing a South African base in Cape Town to spread the game in Africa.
“We can do it because it’s an easy sport to play, by both sexes, young and old, and it’s a very entertaining sport, which can garner tremendous media interest, too,” he says. “The very strong roots in Asia clearly show that it’s part of the sporting culture and heritage of the world’s biggest continent.”
For the record, sepak takraw is also a medal sport since 1990 in the Asian Games and has been an ever-present in the SEA Games from 1967 onwards.
ISTAF achieved a breakthrough in its Olympic ambitions earlier this year. As part of the Alliance of Independent recognised Members of Sport (AIMS), the union of 23 non-Olympic sports signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recognise AIMS’ role in the development and promotion of sport, and also in support of athletes in their chosen field.
“I must admit that it’s a tall order for an Asian sport to be recognised by the IOC, as the criteria is very stringent and there have been several submissions already by various other sports. But I’m going to give it my very best shot for sepak takraw, to be at the Olympics one day,” said Halim Kader, who is also the President of the Asian Sepak Takraw Federation (ASTAF.
But Halim, like an experienced political-savvy Made-in-Singapore sporting ambassador, believes in slow and steady diplomacy in reaching his Olympics goal and says International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach is a fan of new and exciting sports.
“I believe sepak takraw has unimaginable potential as a family-entertainment sport played by hundreds of thousands, yet unknown to millions – and now it is seeking a place on the Olympic stage,” he says. “We have to put our shoulders to the wheel to make sure we continue to get greater worldwide exposure.”
He’s not worried about the terrain, indoors or outdoors, on the beach, on top of any roof or even played in wintery conditions as it shows the versatility of the sport that can be played in almost any globally-tuned environment.
For Halim, his passion for the rattan-ball started from ‘kampong’ schooldays when he was 10, as he relished it as a sport and religion, too, as it inculcated, through competition, an exquisite grassroots art-form, perfect as a heartlander sport.
MISSIONARIES OF SPORT
In order to spread the game to other parts of Asia, he intends to woo sepak takraw-playing nations to act as missionaries of the game within the continent.
He adds: “We have asked our regional member associations to ‘adopt’ non-playing countries, to help them in their development. Iran for instance, will focus on helping out three Central Asian countries in the form of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. China will assist the development of takraw in Hong Kong, while Singapore will ‘adopt’ Timor Leste.”
Outside the Asean fraternity, he’s spreading the message every day. For example, in the far-reaching Gulf sub-continent, Oman now has a total of 120 registered players, Nepal, up close to the mountains of the Everest, has a fledgling community of 213 registered players while Sri Lanka, noted for the fanatical south Asian sport of cricket, has about 180.
The “kingpins” of the sport are Thailand and Malaysia, which spearhead the ISTAF SuperSeries, which is an international competition that was started in 2011 to showcase the best players around the world.
To reach out to a global audience, Halim has linked with sports marketing company Asia Sports Ventures, which helped to market the game to broadcasters such as Malaysia’s Astro Supersports, South Korea’s KBS Sport and EuroSport. The strategic move meant that sepak takraw can easily reach out to about 1.4 billion potential viewers across the globe.
Halim who confesses he just thinks of the ratan-ball 1,440 minutes every day, is pragmatic about the continued growth of the sport, with the sustainability of the SuperSeries in the long run.
THE SUPER SERIES
“The SuperSeries platform is progressing on all fronts, from one year to another and from one tournament to another,” he says. “The new format of introducing the ISTAF SuperSeries has yielded great success. This was merely created due to the demand from fans around the world, clamouring to witness matches with evenly contested and equally-skilled teams.”
Reaching out to the grassroots is a personal lifestyle trademark as Halim has been a former senior civil servant at the Immigration Department of Singapore, who was awarded several national awards including the BBM and PBM for his rousing community work.
He’s very well connected on the political front, too, as a People’s Action Party (PAP) stalwart, last holding the post as deputy chairman for the PAP Bedok Reservoir-Punggol Branch at the Aljunied GRC. He is also a founding member of Yayasan Mendaki, a leading heartlander Malay-Muslim organisation.
For the moment, his immediate target is the October 20 ASTAF (Asian Sepak Takraw Federation) Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, where he will be re-contesting to lead the Asian body, with 25 members. He has been the favourite president for the past 12 years.
“I’m a very humble and simple gentleman, from a little red-dot of island, with almost an unending spree to promote sepak takraw, a Malay ‘kampong’ sport, to be recognised by the IOC. My immediate target is over the next 24 months before the Tokyo Olympic Games,” he says.
“I just love the rattan ball and sepak takraw has the real potential to be a globally infectious sport, with an absolute family-viewership, from stadiums to the homes. I will never stop until I achieve my longer-term dream to make it an Olympics event.”
And he says it, holding on to the lovable rattan ball and showing the fiery spirit and heroic heart of the famed Hollywood rocket-heeled cartoon icon, ‘Speedy Gonzales’.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has known Abdul Halim Kader for more than three decades and believes sepak takraw can be a universally-recognised Olympic sport very soon.