The Asian Games were first held under the auspices of
the International Amateur Athletic Federation and are
now regulated by the Olympic Council of Asia. The first
Asian games were held in 1951. Athletes came from
Afghanistan, Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka),
India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Nepal, the Philippines,
Siam (Thailand), and Singapore. Six events were featured: track and field, basketball, cycling, football,
swimming, and weight lifting. The fact that the games
included no traditional Asian sports indicates how
“western” international sport culture had become by
the postwar period.
The Asian Games have always been highly politicized, although perhaps no more than other international sports events. Israel attended the first games, but
Syria did not. Iran attended but Iraq did not. Pakistan,
only recently separated from India, refused to attend
the first games. Communist China and Vietnam were
also absent because India refused to recognize either
Athletes from 18 countries attended the second
Asian Games, which were hosted in 1954 in Manila, the
Perhaps fittingly, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito opened
the third Asian Games in 1958, which were staged in
Tokyo. His speech to athletes assembled from 20 countries was very short—three sentences—but no doubt
meant much to a Japan so recently defeated by western
forces. Japan was again triumphant on the field. There
was some irony in the choice of Jakarta, Indonesia, as
the site of the fourth Asian Games in 1962, since it was
Japan that had created, during its occupation of the
erstwhile Dutch East Indies, the basis for an organized
Indonesian sports program.
Sukarno’s conduct during the fourth Asian Games
irritated the members of the International Olympic
Committee (IOC), who felt that their authority was being challenged. Sukarno was unmoved and, in fact, immediately began to experiment with a new international structure for sports in the “nonwestern” world,
calling it “The Games of the Newly Emerging Forces”
Insofar as GANEFO came into creation in clear opposition to the western powers, both the Soviet Union
and communist China supplied money and sent athletes to the few GANEFO events that were staged. Indonesia also received enough support from emerging
nations in Asia and Africa that the IOC felt obliged to
back off from its threats of expulsion: most GANEFO
states had athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964.
In fact, although GANEFO did not survive long after
Sukarno’s ouster in 1965, the affair showed the West that
Asian nations could indeed organize alternate games.
During the fifth Asian Games in Bangkok, Thailand
in 1966, the government issued a special set of postage
stamps featuring “modern” sports, that is to say, the
western sports that were, and still are, featured at these events. At the next games in 1970, also in Bangkok,
closing ceremonies featured a spectacular fireworks
display and an entirely Asian assembly of contestants
singing “Auld Lang Syne.” These games, as before, were
dominated by Japanese athletes.
The seventh Asian Games, held in Tehran, Iran, in
1974, were chiefly notable for the participation of
mainland Chinese athletes for the first time.
Israel, though, was barred from the next games, in
Bangkok in 1978, six years after the infamous terrorist
attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich.
One Thai organizer rationalized the expulsion with the
comment,“Like a neighbor whose house is on fire, you
want to move away from them.” This was surely one of
the low points in sports “internationalism.”
In 1982, for the ninth games, the event moved back
to its birthplace, New Delhi, where the government of
Indira Gandhi is said to have spent nearly $1 billion for
the construction of new facilities.
The next games were staged in Seoul, South Korea,
whose government believed Korea’s international prestige would rise as a result. Athletically, this effort paid
off, in that South Korean athletes came in a close second to China in the achievement of medals.
However, there were domestic political problems
during the Seoul games, and these sometimes threatened to crowd news of Korean sports victories off the
front page. Most people noticed a heavy police presence, and five universities, hotbeds of opposition to the
Korean government, were shut down during the course
of the games. While Korean students battled their government, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone
took the occasion to apologize to the Korean people for
the oppressive period of Japanese colonialism. The Chinese again outdid their Japanese rivals.
In 1990, mainland China hosted the games. Beijing,
determined to make the most of what was to be China’s
biggest-ever international gathering, directed massive
resources to the games. A few traditional Asian games
were featured in exhibition, notably kabbadi, the Indian game of team pursuit and capture, but most
events were modern and western. The 1994 games were
hosted by Hiroshima, Japan, and signaled a new era in
the life of that once-devastated city. The Hiroshima
Games also featured a first: an ex-Soviet Asian Republic, Kazakhstan, attended. Its athletes won two gold
medals in wrestling and demonstrated anew that Asia
is not a changeless geographical entity.
Bibliography: Kanin, D. (1982) A Political History of the
Olympic Games. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Knuttgen,
Howard G., Ma Qiwei, and Wu Zhonguan, eds. (1990)
Sport in China. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Books.
Wagner, Eric A. (1989) Sport in Asia and Africa: A Comparative Handbook. New York: Greenwood Press.
The Asian Games were first held under the auspices of