When you think about kabaddi, you think about strength, you think about courage, mud but most importantly you think about India. Identified across the lengths and breadths of the country with different names, kabaddi is quintessentially Indian with references to the sport going back in history.

Kabaddi lost its grip on the urban crowds as other international games took over, relegating it to a predominantly rural status. With diminishing incentives to play the game, the sport was in danger of becoming a pastime.

Much before Pro Kabaddi arrived to revolutionise the sport, kabaddi’s entry into the Asian Games was a massive boost to the sport’s ailing fortunes. It gave kabaddi a status and more importantly its players an avenue to make a livelihood from.

An Asian Games medallist is handed several benefits and kabaddi being perhaps the easiest route to a podium finish at the continental event, it gained in preference among those sitting on the fence of similar sports.

Going international

Kabaddi though had little or no international presence till the 1970s. The national championship was a major event within the country but it remained the biggest kabaddi competition that existed.

In 1977, kabaddi took first steps towards an international presence and subsequently towards the Asian Games with the formation of the Asian Kabaddi Federation. The association consisted of only three members: India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

It was the case for few years to come with the first Asian Championships in 1980 in Kolkata being played between just these three teams.

Demonstration at 1982 Delhi Games

The first opportunity to really present itself to the world and especially Asia for kabaddi came in 1982 when the game was introduced as a demonstration sport in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi.

“It was the first time that we were able to talk about the sport with major Asian countries,” E Prasad Rao, the current technical director of the International Kabaddi Federation, who coached the team during the 1982 demonstration games told Scroll.in.

“Since kabaddi was quite popular in India, the games attracted a huge crowd. Even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended one of the matches. For kabaddi, that was a great show,” he added.

The opportunity was used well to introduce kabaddi in other Asian countries.

“In the 1982 Games, along with kabaddi, sepak takraw was also being demonstrated. The sport was played in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. We exchanged our games. They like kabaddi and India also adopted sepak takraw,” Rao said.

Building on the success of the 1982 Games, the Indian kabaddi federation organised an international tournament in Mumbai. Apart from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Singapore also participated in the tournament.

Inclusion in South Asian Games, a stepping stone

This tournament was a success and helped kabaddi become a part of the 1985 South Asian Games as an official competition. Seven teams participated as kabaddi was played at an authorised international competition for the first time.

“The 1985 South Asian Games were a stepping stone for kabaddi’s inclusion in the Asian Games,” Rao said.

“With it becoming a South Asian Games sport, it was recognised by the Olympic associations of all the participating countries. So it was an authorised sport in those countries apart from India,” he added.

The South Asian Games may have provided kabaddi with the much-needed platform to make the jump to the Asian Games, there was a lot to be achieved for kabaddi to actually get there as a competitive sport.

Fulfilling the criteria

Kabaddi didn’t just need to be recognised by maximum national Olympic federations across Asia but also needed to be played among a large population in the continent.

The Indian Olympic Association who were at the forefront of leading kabaddi’s journey to the Asiad set sights on roping in China and Japan, the two most prominent and powerful Asian countries. With China on its side, kabaddi could meet the population criteria as well.

The challenge was to make the national Olympic federations of these countries willing to adopt kabaddi, a relatively unknown discipline till that point.

“A lot of people’s effort went into making kabaddi an Asian Games sport,” Rao said.

“Randhir Singh who was the General Secretary of IOA at that time. He was a very respected figure in Olympic Council of Asia and because of him, we gained access to a lot of national Olympic federations. Janardan Singh Gehlot, who is currently the president of International Kabaddi Federation as the vice-president of IOA then. He also pushed kabaddi a lot at the Asian level,” he added.

Simple and cost-effective

Kabaddi’s relative simplicity and the lack of equipment needed to play the sport were factors that worked in the sport’s favour.

“We went to China to demonstrate the game and got a very good response,” Rao said.

“We thought the language may be a barrier but the Chinese understood the sport quite quickly. It was a quick, athletic sport, so their general reaction was that they could play this. Kabaddi is very straight-forward. If you tag a player you get point, if you don’t the other team gets a point. The simplicity of the sport worked in our favour,” he added.

Kabaddi during those times used to be played in space designated for the weekly bazaars in Indian villages. It was a sport that didn’t need any equipment or a big space. So it used to be played even by the poor as the cost of playing was minimal.

“Kabaddi being a cheap sport made it easier for various developing countries to adopt it. At that time, there were many field disciplines in Asian Games where you needed a lot of space and big stadium. Kabaddi was a sport that could be played even on school grounds. This was the most critical factor,” he added.

During the China tour, Rao had taught the game to many physical education teachers who managed to further propagate the game. China assembled a team from players from Beijing Sports University and toured India. After their brief training, Rao gave them video cassettes to help them continue their training.

Japan also formed a team with university students and with the two powerhouses of Asian sport on board, kabaddi was introduced in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing that was hosted in China.

E Prasad Rao training Japanese team. kabaddirao.com

For India, the inclusion of kabaddi wouldn’t have been better timed as the sport yielded India’s only gold medal from the Games.

After 1990, kabaddi struggled to be included in Asian Games on a few occasions but the ability to host sports anywhere from a warm-up room to a basketball court and the relative low cost for hosting it made it sail through. In 2010, the women’s category was added.

India's 1990 Asian Games team coached by E Prasad Rao. kabaddirao.com

Pro Kabaddi definitely proved to be a stimulus to the sport as 11 countries participated in the men’s category at the 2018 Asian Jakarta Games. Nine teams competed in the women’s category.

Iran upstaged India in both categories to claim the gold medal for the first time while South Korea bagged silver. India, who gave the sport to the world, were at a loss, but it was the biggest gain for the sport since its inclusion in the Asian Games in 1990. Kabaddi has never been stronger. One wonders though where it would stand had it not made the jump from a typical rural Indian sport to an Asian Games discipline.