Belt Wrestling: One of Asia’s fastest-growing sports reaches the world stage at Ashgabat 2017
If you were to scroll down the sports list at the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Games, the sport of belt wrestling would certainly stand out due to its lack of global footprint. However, one of the most popular sports in Central Asia successfully made its debut in Ashgabat in front of a full 15,000-capacity stadium, much to the home fans' delight.
However, little did the fans and pundits alike know about the sport’s popularity outside the traditional big four – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyztan and Kazakhstan.
"Belt wrestling is a way of life"
Japan‘s Tatsumo Kurosaki might have crashed out in the pre-quarterfinals of the 70kg category, but his participation at the Asian Indoor Games was a landmark event for the country. He said, “For us, belt wrestling is a way of life! For close to 30 years, the Northern part of Japan (Hokkaido prefecture) has been practicing a different version of this sport, which involves belt. However, when we came to know how popular this sport is in Central Asia last year, we immediately applied to participate."
He added, "We have never had any competitions or foreign exposure trips, but the number of wrestlers in Japan is more than 1000. For us, it's about representing the country and I’m sure in the next 10 years, we will challenge the likes of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan for the throne.”
This is the first time the sport is featuring at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. Bolguz Hyusunbayeva of Kazakhstan, who finished third in the under-60 kg category earlier today, said, “For us, it’s the biggest sport. You can go to the smallest village and they are doing belt wrestling. So for me, I just naturally transitioned to it, it’s a matter of pride for us that we can reach this particular level.”
In Almaty, the nation's capital itself, there are 74 belt wrestling training centers to help budding youngsters reach the professional stage. So how does a sport with little to no global exposure get over 400 participants from 17 countries? The answer lies in the similarity of styles!
Huge potential in India as well
One of the largest contingents outside the traditional big four is India's and the nation of 1.3 billion has sent a contingent of 34 for the event. Sudheer Kumar, coach of the Indian national belt wrestling team had a logical explanation for this unlikely phenomenon. He said, “States in the north-east and south India have a style of wrestling which involves wearing a belt. The moment we saw that this particular sport was included in the Asian Indoor Games, we immediately transitioned these traditional wrestlers to the sport and if you were to look closely, the results have come.”
Dharmender, who was fighting in his first ever international event, won the bronze medal. He said, “I honestly didn’t have any idea about this style. We spent around 20 days practicing but we do have a style similar to this in Maharashtra, so I practiced that. I would really like to continue practicing this style, if possible.”
The country spends a total of just $7,800 a year on developing belt wrestling, which is too less for an ecosystem to survive. In fact, it is the Asian Indoor Games which has helped athletes such as Dharmender get sponsors for the event. He added, “A local oil brand in Maharashtra heard that I was representing India at the Asian Indoor Games and they came forward and sponsored my training and everything. If it wasn’t for this event, I could never validate to the people around me that this sport is legitimate.”
India has won a total of four Olympic medals in wrestling till date and if the country is introduced to belt wrestling now, there is no measure of how far they can go. Regardless of the sport’s Olympic legitimacy, the 2017 Ashgabat Asian Indoor Games have opened an avenue for belt wrestlers across the continent and beyond.