Wednesday 10 September 2014


Last month saw the culmination of a successful inaugural tournament in Mumbai. It was played at eight cities across India and turned out to be a hit among spectators - who witnessed the events unfold inside the stadium along with millions of viewers on television. Finally, a non-cricket sport, very local to India has been marketed and presented as a successful business model.

Recognition for those hard-working athletes, return on investment for people with deep pockets, a platform with commercial benefits for broadcasters and entertainment for viewers. What more do you want? This is what a non-Olympic sport 'Kabaddi' managed to achieve through Pro Kabaddi League recently; a commercial sports property that has captured the hearts of many Indians locally and globally.

Punjabi immigrants playing Kabaddi in Greece 

Kabaddi is primarily a sport played mostly by the Asian countries surrounding the Indian sub-continent. The origins of this contact team sport dates back to pre-historic times and has its inspiration from a scene in the Indian epic 'Mahabharata'. Many who have followed the tales of Abhimanyu - the sixteen year old warrior gallantly trying to break the seven-tiered army formation of the opponents 'Kauravas' can loosely connect with the modern sport of Kabaddi. 

Kabaddi (holding of breath in Hindi) involves athleticism, presence of mind, reflexes, guts, breath control and team work. It is simple to comprehend, played both indoors, grass, beach, just about any outdoor place. A game usually finishes within the clock striking 60 minutes. Seven members consist in a team with two teams participating in a game. One member (raider) gets into the opponent and battles with seven of them together (defense or the antis), while moving to either sides continuously exhaling with chants of 'Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi' without getting caught by the opponent's formation. All the raider has to do is touch as many opponents as possible without getting caught by the defense (opponents) on a single breath. The raider can inhale only when he/she returns to their home court and deemed out if they are unsuccessful in making contact with the opponents. The raider exhales continuously until he scores a point! Phew  

Wrestling in the raider to the ground by the defense helps them to stop the raider from reaching his home court, inhale again and thereby preventing the raider to score points. It is a test of mind, body and a lot more!  

The Antis (defense) touched by a raider during the attack are ruled 'out' if they are unsuccessful in catching the raider before returning to the home court. And then the other team sends a raider and the battle continues. The team with maximum points wins. Gone are the days, when the teams battled on for hours... now it makes sense to have it time bound and thus a marvellous spectator sport. Simple isn't it?

Kabaddi happens to be the national sport of Bangladesh and Nepal though much of its origins and development was in India. Kabaddi dates back to pre-historic times, a time when there was no concept of AD or BC. However, the official recognition of this sport came only in the early 20th century. Kabaddi achieved the national status only in 1918 and the popularity was spread across the country in the coming years thanks to some of the pioneers hailing from Maharashtra - a populous state of India.

Small overview of Kabaddi

In 1912, IOC (International Olympic Committee) had introduced a formal platform through which some of the 'folk' games and other regional games would use Olympics for the promotion of the sport. In the name of 'demonstration sports', several countries put forth their sport and promoted it well- which then resulted in them being part of the Olympic programme. Basketball, canoeing, kayaking, baseball, volleyball, tennis (was part of Olympics from 1896 to 1924), judo, taekwondo in Summer Sports and curling, speed skating, speed skiing, ice dancing, short speed skating were just few demonstration sports to begin with and later becoming a part of the Olympic programme.
Kabaddi too was given an opportunity to be part of this group and a grand promotion was given by the Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal from Maharashtra at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I am not sure what happened after that. Did the Indian hockey team's achievements overshadow this promotional sport? or was it too Indian at that time?

India has been at the forefront for the development of Kabaddi to global audience for close to hundred years. With limited international exposure, it was indeed a challenge to promote the sport commercially. It was mere restricted to schools and colleges with few professionals playing at the national level. Since the birth of the national federation in 1950, the administrators have had constant battles and had to give way to either Hockey till the 1980's or Cricket from the 1980's in order to remain popular. Barring few Asian countries, there were no contests that made headlines and it remained a 'recreational' sport for most people in India - a sport played once in a while just for fun. That includes me! As a kid growing up, I played Kabaddi just for fun without ever dreaming a single day of becoming a 'Kabaddi' player.

Till the beginning of this millennium, Kabaddi was making strides mostly in the Asia continent with it being a regular at the Asian Games since 1990. A mere 31 countries as founding members, the International Kabaddi Federation was formed in 2004. Not surprisingly, India was chosen as its headquarters in Jaipur and with an India holding the reins at the top.

All the continents (five rings, remember?) now have teams that participate in the World cup - a event which has been held since 2004 and held annually since 2010. There is no team yet to defeat India in the finals in both men's and women's division and only time will tell, if other teams are there just to make up the numbers.

Kabaddi is a sport which is very popular in India. Each region knows this sport by different names, unique to their respective regions. Though it is not India's national sport (It is not cricket either... it is hockey) various states have 'Kabaddi' has its state sport.

Where does Kabaddi go from here?

I believe the revival of Kabaddi to suit television audience, spectator friendly and being played in a league format among teams spread across the golden quadrilateral of India is one of the success stories for India this year. Celebrities throwing in their names and money has helped in a great way to stay in the media.

In the last two decades, there is a surge in number of movies released in India with Kabaddi being the theme. Indians to a large extent love to be entertained and most do not mind paying money, spending time and sometimes loads of money to be at the receiving end of the entertainers. Kabaddi as a mass-sport, for the first time has come of age.

India probably is the right country to experiment on non-cricket sports. The consumption of sports is getting better with each year. The next ten years is  a test ground - where sporting revolutions will constantly hit the human evolution across the nation. A little late perhaps to join the bandwagon, but a tremendous business opportunity which would last longer!

Having Kabaddi as a Olympic sport is a long way ahead and I believe that should not be the sole focal point. Everything does not begin and end with being part of the Olympic programme. Taking a cue from the Olympic charter, Kabaddi as a sport exalts and combines in a balanced manner the qualities of body, will and mind. And plus, it is not a complicated sport!

In India, Kabaddi has triggered a  revival movement for so-called 'folk' sports and in turn it into a spectator sport. As long as it is entertaining and athletes keep developing, sport will evolve positively on its own. All it needs is investment and continued nurturing.

The first step of achieving something great is possible and is a common occurrence. Kabaddi in its new avatar (Pro Kabaddi League) has achieved the first target. However, very few have managed to remain relevant and re-discovered themselves for the better from time to time. How will it be say after five years? I would surely want to look back and have more to write on it... or even working on Kabaddi! 

Pro Kabaddi League 2014 - Success story in Indian sports 

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