Indonesian gold medalists, Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir, pose as if biting their medals. (Reuters Photo/Mike Blake)

Johannes Nugroho: Sport and Indonesian Nationalism


SEPTEMBER 22, 2016

The Indonesian Independence Day celebration this year was made all the sweeter when badminton mixed-doubles Tontowi “Owi” Ahmad and Lilyana “Butet” Nasir won the country’s first gold medal at the Rio Olympics. For the homecoming heroes, street parades were held in both Jakarta and Surabaya. Their victory was also unmatched because they presented the first and only gold medal attained by the Indonesian team. However, it must be said that the overall modest 1 gold and 2 silver medals pale against Indonesia’s sports potential as a nation of more than 250 million inhabitants.

Indonesia’s current lack of shine in sports has often been blamed on the lack of government commitment, which is ironic considering how sports was once integral to the country’s “nation building” under president Sukarno.

In his book “Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia [1913-1974]” historian Stefan Huebner analyzes the role of modern sports played in shaping different Asian nationalisms in countries like the Philippines, Japan, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Iran. Amateur sports was introduced to Asia by Western, particularly US-based, private initiatives, spearheaded by organizations such as the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA).

In today’s perspective, theirs was a patronizing mission: to “civilize” the Orient; and to cure it of its social ills like indolence. Early pioneers like Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning also believed participation in rules-based sports would reduce inter-human violence through the introduction of the notion of fair play and honorable defeat.

US-based YMCA groups in the Philippines, for instance, deemed their mission successful when they had managed to teach the local formerly headhunting tribes to play amateur sports together without the losing party initiating any vendetta afterwards.

Internationalism, egalitarianism and economic progress became the pillars embodying  the Western and “muscular Christianity” sporting ideals. As sporting seeds took root in Asia, things did not go as many of their original US Christian proponents had intended. For one, the Christian strain of the movement found rejection in non-Christian Asian societies.

Then, as the 20th century saw the emergence of anti-colonial sentiments, Western-introduced sports underwent modifications, primarily to serve the interests of nationalist movements, and to a lesser degree; anti-imperialist pan-Asianism.

This rang true particularly in Indonesia when Sukarno seized the moment by bidding successfully for the right to host the 1962 Asian Games in 1958. Eager to show off Indonesia’s emancipation from colonial rule as well as his own personal prestige, the autocratic president embarked upon gargantuan infrastructure projects to spruce up Jakarta as the next host of the Asian Games.

“The Asian Games Stadium must be greater and more beautiful than other stadiums. In short, the 4th Asian Games must be better than the former Asian Games,” said Sukarno in a speech. It was truly ambitious by any account since the previous Games were held in Japan, which was at the time the most developed and prosperous of Asian nations.

Ironically, however, he funded most of his new nationalist infrastructure with foreign money: a new stadium, now known as the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, along with the Senayan Sports Complex were erected with a Russian loan of $12 million and the help of Russian experts; Japanese wartime reparations amounting to $11 million paid for the new Hotel Indonesia; US development aid was used to construct the Jakarta Flyover while a new national bank building was commissioned to house the art exhibition during the Games along with the famed Sarinah Department Store and other landmarks such as the modernist Soviet-style Welcome Statue.

In a bid to become a “beacon” for the other developing nations, the Indonesian government attempted to use the Games to better reflect its “non-aligned” foreign policy. Paradoxically, the nature of Sukarno’s “non-alignment” proved to be biased against what he termed “neo-imperialist” Western nations and their allies.

Violating the principle of international egalitarianism that sporting events like the Asian Games were supposed to represent, the Indonesian organizers schemed to exclude both “pro-imperialist” Israel and Taiwan from participating. In one instance the Indonesian Immigration Office refused to let in the Taiwanese delegate Hao Gengsheng and charged him with attempting to enter the country illegally.

In another, when one of the founders of the Asian Games Federation the Indian Guru Dutt Sondhi resisted Indonesia’s attempt to politicize the Games by trying to revoke Jakarta’s right to hold the Games, he became a target for Indonesian mob violence. About 20,000 demonstrators attacked the Indian Embassy in Jakarta and surrounded Hotel Indonesia where Sondhi was staying.

The antics earned Jakarta applause from Eastern Bloc countries but alienated the rest of the world. Although Indonesia still hosted the 1992 Games and came in second in the medal tally after Japan, in February 1963, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the Indonesian National Olympic Committee (NOC) for an unlimited time from the Olympic movement.

After the fall of Sukarno in 1965, no subsequent Indonesian leader has attempted to use sports to boost the country’s international standing as much as Sukarno did. The theme of nationalism, however, remains very strong, as reflected in the anthem of the Indonesian National Sports Committee (KONI), Mars Patriot Olahraga (the Sporting Patriot Anthem).

Yet, the shift from using sports as a means of cultivating civic culture to the avenue of glory, national or otherwise, may not be without consequences. The principles of fair play and honorable defeat have clearly taken a back seat in the national sporting psyche as a result. The currently ongoing National Sports Week (PON) in West Java has seen allegations of foul play.

Dhimam Abror, chairman of KONI East Java, told the press that, “Our host [West Java] resorts to all sorts of tricks [to win].” He went on to give the example of Tania Roumeper, a former West Java bowling athlete now representing East Java. Accused of “defecting,” Tania has been “terrorized” by the West Java organizers.

The state of Indonesia’s national sports is far from ideal. Indonesia continues to punch below its weight in the international sports arena. While excellence is the ultimate goal of any sporting endeavor, the means are sometimes more important than the ends. It is perhaps time the nation went back to the original roots of the sports movement: fair play, international cooperation and egalitarianism.