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The Pomp of the Games: Sports, Politics, and Ritual in the Indonesian Asian Games

September 27, 2018

By: Imam Subkhan

When we win, it’s an achievement
When we fail, don’t be frustrated
When we win, show solidarity
Let’s show sportsmanship

(Via Vallen, “Reach for the Stars,” the 18th Asian Games official theme song)


While politicians, sports federations, and professionals often repudiate the link between politics and sports on behalf of neutrality, sportsmanship, and meritocracy, many believe that sports and politics are indivisible. This contradictory standpoint of views departs from two different levels of interrelated domain and analysis that likely constitute each other that I call the sports field and political arena. In this article, I argue that the principle of sportsmanship, neutrality, and meritocracy in the sports field can be upheld without invalidating the presence of the political arena in the sports games. The sports field in which athletes compete with one another to reach victory and the political arena that refers to the sociocultural space around those involved in the events are two sides of the same coin that constitute the modern multi-sports event. The current Asian Games would be the best vantage point for understanding how the moral principles of sports games entangle with the political impulse and desires in the practices mediated through the ritualization of the sports games.

Indonesia is considered to have succeeded in hosting the greatest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympics, the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, and Palembang, South Sumatera from August 18 to September 2, 2018. In the Games that drew almost 17,000 athletes, coaches, and officials, not only did Indonesia garner 31 gold medals and 98 medals overall that put the country fourth in the medal table, behind South Korea, Japan, and China—the highest achievement in the Asian Games history since 1962—, but also received international recognition that will boost the status and image of Indonesia among the world’s countries, especially in the Asian region (Wright 2018; Wade 2018). In his statement, the IOC President Thomas Bach said that “with this Asian Games, with this great success, Indonesia has demonstrated that it has all the ingredients to organize the Olympic Games in a very successful way” (Nathalia 2018)

The Politics of the Games

It was Indonesian first President Sukarno who called for establishing a sport association on the basis of politics after the IOC suspended Indonesian from the Olympic Games for rejecting to issue visas for Taiwan and Israel participants in the fourth Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962 (Pauker 1965; Boykoff 2016; Field 2017). The IOC accused Indonesia of exerting a political arena in the sports game that violated the principle of neutrality. Rather than lobbying for withdrawing the suspension, Sukarno challenged the IOC by forming and hosting the rival of the Olympic Games named the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO). No more than 2,200 athletes from forty-eight countries, including the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, France, and the Netherlands participated in the Games. Through the GANEFO, Sukarno attempted to lift the political position of Indonesia internationally as a new country in leading the anti-colonialism and imperialism movement. However, according to his political opponents, the GANEFO was also used by Sukarno to divert the people’s attention from their economic hardships and mis-governance.

The roles of sport as a political means and a soft power strategy to “attract and co-opt [others] to want what you want” (Nye 2004, 2) are still relevant today. As the members of the G-20, the third biggest democratic and the largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia hasn’t played the most significant global roles both politically and economically. The 18th Asian Games became the political arena that provided an opportunity to contribute to the process of increasing the nation’s image and identity and showcasing Indonesia globally. Therefore, the Indonesian government did its best to depict itself as a modern, advanced nation and meet the globalized standard of the world-class event.

These serious efforts were not only indicated by the huge money that the Indonesian government spent on the Games—IDR 4.5 trillion ($338 million) was disbursed from the state budget—but also manifested in the detailed project activities to enchant and remake Jakarta and Palembang to be a cosmopolitan city. The local government with the central government worked together to develop infrastructures rapidly, beautify the cities’ appearance, and ensure the cities’ security and safety. A month before the event, for example, the Jakarta city government managed to solve the smelly Sentiong river, widely called Kali Item (Black River), which traverses the area near the athletes’ venues in Kemayoran, Central Jakarta. Governor Anies Baswedan ordered the cover up of the river with a 689-meter-long black nylon net combined with aerators treatment and nanobubble technology in an attempt to reduce the foul smell generated from the evaporation of the polluted river water (Cochrane 2018).

The giant black nylon net project, worth IDR 580 million (US$40,000), triggered public criticism for deploying this instant and ineffective solution. The Kali Item debate got heated after Governor Anies blamed the previous administration’s failure—pointing to his political rival in the last dramatic gubernatorial election, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama— for not taking the measures to address the river problem for years. This accusation was countered by a netizen who uploaded photos about a group of children swimming at the Kali Item that was apparently clean in the years of Ahok’s term. However, the debate immediately ended when Vice President Jusuf Kalla and several Jakarta City Councilors visited the Kali Item to monitor the progress of its treatment. The City Councilors even went to a restaurant located about 20 meters from the river and ate tongseng (Indonesian sweet-and-spicy goat stew) to show to the public that the unpleasant smell had disappeared.

The desire to convey an image of modernity and express national identity was also demonstrated in the opening ceremony of the Games at the Bung Karno stadium. The ceremony started with a video showing a man who resembled President Jokowi, dressing in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, riding a Presidential Security Detail (Paspamres) motorcycle to enter the stadium after maneuvering his way through the Jakarta traffic jam and narrow valley and even making a stoppie for a timely arrival at the ceremony. The idea of the video was inspired by the London Olympics opening ceremony when James Bond actor Daniel Craig transported Queen Elizabeth II from the palace to the stadium by helicopter. Despite the appreciation of the fantastic opening ceremony, oppositional politicians accused Jokowi of exploiting the ceremony as a means to perpetuate his image ahead of the presidential election next year.

As a welcome greeting of the ceremony, 1500 female students performed a colossal Garis Indonesia dance adapted from the Acehnese traditional dance Ratoeh Jaroe. The dance represented Indonesia’s rich culture and diversity that is mostly influenced by Islamic culture and conveyed the message of unity, togetherness, and solidarity that ties the Indonesian nation despite cultural and religious differences. The impressive opening ceremony invited admiration and appreciation from both audiences in the stadium and those who watched from live broadcast TV, which overwhelmed social media and press coverage. They expressed how proud they were of being Indonesian citizens that increased the self-confidence. The ceremony became a the self-demonstrative vehicle that shows Indonesian is capable of hosting a world-class sports event as the advanced countries are without losing their singular identity. This positive reputation, in turn, would augment Indonesian global status and position on the world stage (Cha 2009).

Athletes as Exemplary Figures

Apart from showing national identity and building state image, the Asian Games was a moment where athletes became a symbol of the nation that constitutes the moral order of the community. Indonesian athletes who play at the games do not only represent themselves as individuals bounded by the sports’ rule and regulation but as “an exemplary figure who embodies the moral value of the community and thus serve as a symbol of those values” (Birrell 1981). By taking this framework, the prompt action of the Japanese officials to send home their four basketball players who paid for sex in Jakarta during the Games was reasonable. They were regarded as having disgraced not only themselves but also a national team and the Japanese people.

In contrast, a young Indonesian sprinter, Lalu Muhammad Zohri who won the 2018 World Junior Championship and a 4 x 100-meter race silver medal of the 18th Asian Games is admired and adored by Indonesians. He is a role model for hard work and a never-give-up spirit. Despite being born in a poor family and raised in a bamboo shack, he was steadfast in making his dream come true. Not able to afford shoes, Zohri used to train to run barefoot on the beach near his village in the rural Lombok island. He even asked his sister for money to buy shoes before departing to Finland to participate in the World Junior Championship on July 2018. Coming back from Finland as a champion, he got the overwhelming expression of public sympathy due to his poor family background, and his sprint video in the Finlandia championship became viral. President Jokowi invited him to the palace to receive the award and appreciation from the Indonesian government. Zohri’s story continued during the Games in which he joined in the men’s 100 meters and 4 x 100-meter run categories. A crowd of thousands jammed the stadium to applaud and give him moral support. The people kept praising his efforts even though he only presented a silver medal to the nation.

In the same vein, a women taekwondo fighter Defia Rosmaniar, the first Indonesian gold medal holder at the Games, also won the hearts of the Indonesian people. She shared her sacrifice by training hard and consistently for success. For example, living away from family even and missing her father’s funeral during her training camp in South Korea. The same spirit was also demonstrated by a men’s singles badminton player Anthony Sinisuka Ginting who lay on the court after getting a hamstring injury when he played against Shi Yuqi from China in the men’s team badminton final of the Games. Many appreciated his struggles in the heroic match though he eventually had to quit the game when his injury was getting worse. A thousand supporters applauded him and gave a standing ovation when he was carried off on a stretcher out of the court.

Ritualization of the Games

All those stories tell us how the moral values of the community are manifest in the athletes fighting at the Games. Drawing on Durkheimian works, sports games and religion to some extent have the same logic in the way both relate to the sacred thing. In his canonical book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim (1915) divides the religious process into two aspects: beliefs and rites. Beliefs are characterized as “state of opinion, and consist in representation,” while rites are “determined modes of action” that relate to the sacred things (51). The characters of the sacred things according to Goffman (1982) are something that must be protected, affirmed, and maintained, and require a community to respect them. The place of the gods is taken by the athletes through ritualization in the form of the sports games. As two crossed sticks become sacred through the Christian ritual, athletes are also transformed into the sacred through the sports game.

A taekwondo fighter like Defia Rosmaniar is in the profane when she trains in the backyard of her house. But she is the sacred once she joined in the ritualized competition such as the Asian Games. In the ritual of the Asian Games, she does not just represent an individual but also embodies the collective representation, national pride, identity, and moral order to which the people are attached. The ritual of the Games starts with the opening ceremony to initiate the athletes who will participate in the competition and ends with the closing ceremony to reintegrate and return the athletes to their community with a new identity as a hero. Between two of them, athletes experience the liminality of the competition in which they are in “the state and process which is betwixt-and between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order, and registering structural status” (Turner 1979, 465). The competition that takes place in the sport fields is the mid-phase of the ritual during which athletes are in transition from ordinary-citizen status to national heroes.

The athletes mediate the symbols of the community and the individuals within the community that occur in the sports games. The extent to which athletes are respected by individuals depends on how they hold the principle values in the sports field such as neutrality, sportsmanship, and meritocracy. However, the ritualization of the sports field also involves the political arena of the sports games that allows the competition in the sports field to take place. The Asian Games is the mega event that requires a political decision because it brings political sovereignty and identity. Without a political decision, the Asian Games would not be able to mobilize state resources such as ideas, people, budget, facilities, bureaucracy, and market. As a political decision, the Asian Games unfolds the political arena in which state actors negotiate with one another to gain their own interests: reputation and legitimation. In this way, we see that sports cannot be separated from the politics. But the politics evidently contributes to the presence of the sports field in which athletes ritualized that consist in principle values and moral order in the competition to be respected by the people and become sacred.

From the ritual analysis of the Asian Games, we also find that the instrumental perspective that regards the pomp of the Games served the state power seems inadequate to understand the opposite facts in which all the efforts of the state attempted to display and direct to the pomp. Rather than legitimating and preserving the state power, the pomp of the Games was supported and erected by state power. In other words, the pomp of the Games was an end in itself, not a means of power. It was the power to which “the whole of the Negara [state]…was essentially directed” (Geertz 1980, 124). The pomp of the Games was the embodiment of the social and moral order of the community that constitute the politics of the state.


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