11 August 2009
Thailand this month hosted the first Asian Martial Arts Games with the aim of raising interest and national pride in the Asian fighting sports. Some of the participating countries, such as war-torn Iraq, have struggled against real and deadly fighting back home to promote the sports. But, the Olympic Council of Asia has decided these will also be the last martial arts games.
The first Asian Martial Arts Games open in Thailand, bringing together hundreds of athletes from 40 Asian countries to test their fighting skills.
The competitions range from well-known martial arts, such as kung fu and karate to the more exotic, such as Uzbekistan's kurash, a form of wrestling.
Iraq's National Olympic Committee managed to send a team of athletes, despite past struggles against funding problems and political interference.
As the bus takes them to Bangkok's National Stadium, the excited Iraqis dance and sing.
Mustafa Alsarai, a muay Thai, or kick, boxer, says Iraqi martial artists have had to overcome security concerns and crumbled infrastructure to promote their sports.
"This kind of sport is developing slowly," he said. "God willing, it will develop more in the future. The situation in Iraq right now is stable, so all kinds of sports will develop more. People can go to the clubs and develop sports, especially the martial arts. The Iraqi people like sports, especially martial arts."
Iraqis are starting to see government support for martial arts and other sports after years of neglect from war and political infighting.
Samir Sadiq al-Moussawi heads Iraq's judo federation and sits on the National Olympic Committee. He says martial arts are a good way to keep young Iraqis off the streets and out of trouble.
"This started last year when the government started supporting martial arts because they wanted all the youth to be part of this kind of sport," he said.
However, the First Asian Martial Arts Games will also be the last.
Even before the games began, the Olympic Council of Asia decided, for efficiency, to incorporate them into the Asian Indoor Games.
Sasithara Pichaichannarong is permanent secretary to Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports - the organizer of the games. She says the ministry accepts the council's decision but is disappointed that Asia's martial arts will no longer have their own tournament.
"I feel that it's a little bit upset for us," she said. "I would like to have the second time, third time, the fourth time, only concentrated on martial arts games."
The games have also been plagued by complaints of poor organization and very few spectators.
Organizers brought in students to fill the empty seats, and many, unlike this student, do not stay long.
"I'm here because I love Thailand. The rest, they went home. But, I'm still here because I really love muay Thai boxing," said a student.
Being part of the Asian Indoor Games could good for martial arts. At the very least, they would attract a larger audience to Asia's fighting sports. And, more interest could help turn more young people like Iraq's Mustafa into champions.