Martial Arts at the 2018 Asian Games

Earlier this month the 2018 Asian Games wrapped up in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia.  Virtually unheard of in North America, the Asian Games (also known as Asiad) are a big deal here in the East, where they are recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and in fact constitute the second largest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympic Games.  The Asian Games began in New Delhi, India in 1951 with only 11 countries.  The small number of participants was in part due to the fact that many Asian nations were still colonies of Europe, while the pro-imperialist agenda of the organizers succeeded in excluding North Korea, Vietnam and the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union.  Fast forward to today, 45 nations participate in the games, including the “west Asian” countries of Bahrain, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.


While not on many people’s radar in the West, the Asian Games are a lot of fun for martial arts fans.  That’s because as of the 2018 games they include a total of 10 combat disciplines: boxing, judo, karate, ju-jitsu, kurash, pencak silat, sambo, wushu, taekwondo and wrestling.  Some of these are not widely known in western countries at all.  For example, kurash is an umbrella term for the indigenous wrestling styles of Central Asia, whose practitioners often compete in sambo and Greco-Roman wrestling tournaments as well.  Pencak silat refers to the Indonesian martial arts tradition, which include strikes, throws, grappling and weapons.

Martial Arts Highlights of the 2018 Asian Games


One of the biggest stories to emerge from Jakarta was that jiu-jitsu, whose international profile has exploded in the past decade thanks to the growing popularity of MMA, was included in the games for the first time ever.  “It’s official! Jiu-Jitsu is now part of the Olympic movement” announced  It may surprise some that out of all the countries participating, it was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that took home the most medals in jiu-jitsu (9) although they were tied with Kazakhstan for number of gold (2).  The subject of much talk was Jessa Khan, a 16-year-old California native of Cambodian and Latina parents, who won the gold for Cambodia in the women’s 49 kg (108 lb) ne-waza by defeating the UAE’s Mahra al-Hinaai.



The 2018 Asian Games saw Uzbekistan continue its meteoric rise in the world of boxing.  Proving that its domination of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was no mere fluke, Uzbek pugilists again took home the highest number of boxing medals (5 gold and 2 silver), although North Korea and China dominated the women’s division.  Uzbekistan also scored the highest medal count in kurash, was third in sambo and tied Mongolia for third in wrestling.

Light flyweight Amit Panghal achieved India’s first boxing gold medal ever when he took his revenge against Uzbekistan’s Hasanboy Dusmatov, who had previously defeated him in last year’s AIBA World Boxing Championships in Hamburg.  Panghal, who hails from a poor farming village in the northern state of Haryana, has become a national celebrity in his home country.


Perhaps the most dramatic boxing story to emerge from the games, however, was the women’s flyweight bout between North Korea’s Pang Chol-mi and China’s Chang Yuan.

As reported:

“Two North Korean coaches were kicked out of the Asian Games Saturday after mounting a protest in the ring after one of their boxers lost the women’s flyweight final.

Coach Pak Chol Jun refused to leave the ring and incited boxer Pang Chol Mi to remain behind in protest against the judging after China’s Chang Yuan won gold on a 3-2 split decision.

Both were eventually forced to leave by police and security staff after the nasty standoff marred the finale to the Asiad boxing competition.

Another coach, Pak Il Nam, got into an angry frenzy outside the ring as he tried to whip up the crowd to jeer the decision.

The large contingent of North Korean delegation members in the crowd and a big section of South Korean fans then jeered Chang unsportingly as she received her gold medal.

Pang stood stony-faced as she received the silver medal, refused to acknowledge any cheers, then turned away from the Chinese flag during the anthem and would not join the other medal winners for the usual group photo afterwards.

North Korean’s don’t play!


The other major North Korean story was that the country continued its absolute dominance of both men and women’s weightlifting, a phenomenon that has dumbfounded commentators in recent years.  North Korea took home 10 medals including 8 gold, leaving Iran a distant second with 4 medals (two gold).  In the women’s division the feat was even more impressive, with North Korean ladies capturing 5 of 8 gold medals.


Another development at the Jakarta games that might come as a surprise to some is that Iran continued to challenge China’s hegemony over Wushu, a martial art many assume is not extensively practised outside of its birthplace.  There is some precedent to this: at the 7th World Junior Wushu Championships in Brazil in July, Iran took home 11 gold medals to become world champions – the first time any country other than China has done so.  While it did not repeat its success at Jakarta – China achieved double the medals – Iran followed in second and scored two major upsets in the men’s sanda, first when Mohsen Mohammad Seifi defeated Shi Zhanwei for the 70 kg (154 lb) gold, and secondly when Erfan Ahangarian beat Wang Xuetao for the 60 kg (132 lb) gold.

For those unfamiliar with Wushu, the 2018 Asian Games proved just how dynamic and entertaining it is, particularly in its competitive combat form, called sanda (or sanshou).  Wushu sanda is a full-contact sport that includes hand and foot strikes, wrestling, throws, sweeps, and in some professional tournaments, knee and elbow strikes are permitted as well.  Many wushu fighters have gone on to succeed in K-1 , Muay Thai, boxing, Muay Thai and shoot boxing as well.


Perhaps the most inspiring story from the 2018 games was that of Nargis Hameedullah, a 19-year-old female Karateka from Pakistan.  Hailing from Hazara Town, a poor ethnic enclave of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, Nargis belongs to Pakistan’s severely persecuted Hazara minority.  Hazaras are targeted by armed extremist groups within the country, and human rights group estimate at least 509 Hazara people have been murdered since 2013.  Nagris’s own grandmother was taken in one such terrorist attack in February of that year.  As Hazara men and women are often randomly targeted, Nagris quite literally risks her life each time she travels to attend tournaments.

Despite the threats to her safety, financial obstacles, and the extra burden of a traditional culture which discourages women from pursuing martial arts, Nagris has stayed dedicated to her calling since she began training at age eleven.

Nagris’s determination paid off this month when she made history by becoming the first Pakistani to win a Karate medal at the Asian Games, after defeating Nepal’s Rita Karki to take bronze in the 68 kg (149 lb) event.

Now with her eyes on the 2010 Olympics in Tokyo, Nargis continues to teach and train at the Hazara Shotokan Karate Academy in her hometown of Quetta.  The predominantly female dojo – some 80 women and girls train there – aims to uplift and empower women as they struggle against patriarchy, racism and poverty in their everyday lives.


– The Beijing Good Fight Team








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