James Diamond

To all you card game fans out there I sincerely apologise, but I have to ask because it has been bugging me for weeks.

Why was bridge on the programme for the 2018 Asian Games?

Throughout the second half of August and into early September I spent 20 days out in Jakarta covering the 18th edition of the multi-sport event and as I sat on my flight back to Britain the day after the Closing Ceremony, I found myself not just questioning why bridge was involved, but also wondering why there are so many sports included in the Games full stop?

In an age where the cost of such multi-sport events is coming under increasing scrutiny and where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has athlete quotas to limit the scale of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Asian Games seems to be going entirely the other way.

At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon four years ago, there were 41 sports, which in itself is still significantly more than at the Summer Olympics.

Then on the programme this year there were 48.

In contrast, the Rio 2016 Olympic Games featured 28 sports, so why is the Asian Games so big?

To some extent I can see it makes sense for the Asian Games to have more.

On the face of it, it makes total sense for a multi-sport Games run by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) to include all the Olympic sports.

Plus, with the Games billed as a celebration of Asian sport and culture, it also seems sensible to include a few sports that are not in the Olympics but are nevertheless big on the continent.

But do the OCA really need to include so many?

With regard to bridge, in a document published in 2002, the IOC stated a belief that “physical exertion in the conduct of competition” is a required element of Olympic sports.

The "mind sport" of bridge featured on the Asian Games programme for the first time in 2018 ©Getty Images

They concluded, therefore, “that ‘mind sports’ [their name for bridge and chess] should not be eligible for admission to the Olympic Programme”.

So, while the IOC and indeed the OCA, have taken the step of labelling bridge a “mind sport”, they have clearly stopped short of calling it a proper sport.

So why include it in a multi “sport” event, which without it would still feature more sports than any other Games on the planet?

It is worth mentioning esports at this point, because, just like bridge, many would argue - and perhaps justifiably so - that esports are not a sport at all.

Yet unlike bridge, gaming looks all but certain to enter the Olympics in the near future.

So why does esports justify inclusion at these events and bridge not?

esports were also included on the Asian Games programme at Jakarta Palembang 2018 ©Getty Images
esports were also included on the Asian Games programme at Jakarta Palembang 2018 ©Getty Images

First off, many would argue neither should be involved, but ignoring that fact for a moment, esports is attractive to the IOC and OCA because it is hugely popular and incredibly profitable.

For example, revenues generated by esports are expected to hit $905 million (£692 million/€778 million) this year and in 2020 its global audience is likely to hit 600 million people.

Bridge has nowhere near this draw, in fact to even hint at comparing bridge and esports in the context of profitability or popularity seems laughable.

So, if esports is gaining traction at the Asian Games for its money-making ability and popularity rather than for its reputation as a sport, why is bridge, which has neither, on the programme?

Having pondered all this, my mind then wandered onto sports like kurash and again I found it hard to understand why such a sport is involved.

The form of wrestling originates from central Asia and is a traditional Asian sport through and through.

In that sense then perhaps it should always be included, but there are a couple of primary, and I think significant facts, that make me question this.

Firstly, the competition at the 2018 Asian Games hardly justified the name.

Of the seven golds on offer, Uzbekistan won six, only missing out in the men’s under 81 kilogram class.

They totally dominated.

The OCA must have known the competition would be ruled by Uzbekistan as well, because at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games last year, the country won five of seven golds on offer in the sport and they also topped the medals table in 2013.

JOC Secretary General Nasser Majali questioned whether pencak silat should have been included on the programme this year, such was Indonesia's dominance ©Getty Images
JOC Secretary General Nasser Majali questioned whether pencak silat should have been included on the programme this year, such was Indonesia's dominance ©Getty Images

Why add a sport in which the competitive element is going to be largely lacking, to a programme already so huge?

The same questions arise in relation to wushu, in which China won 10 of the 14 golds last month and pencak silat, in which Indonesia won 14 of the 16 golds.

Does holding such events, in which one country is so dominant, not detract from the very essence of sport?

Some seem to think so.

With regard to pencak silat, for example, Jordan Olympic Committee secretary general Nasser Majali suggested that the medals won by Indonesia in the sport did not have “true value”, so limited was the competition they faced.

Then there is jet skiing, which featured on the programme despite being so niche that its governing body is not recognised by any of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF) or the Alliance of Independent Recognised Members of Sport (AIMS).

Do not get me wrong, I am sure riding a jet ski must be great fun as it is a fairly common thing to do on a beach holiday, but does it deserve a spot in a multi-sport Games?

Even unusual sports like Basque Pelota have ARISF membership, so if the International Jet Sports Boating Association is either unable to gain or unwilling to achieve, ARISF membership, surely the sport should not be in such events as the Asian Games?

It seems to me then that the event could benefit substantially from reducing the size of the sports programme.

For a start, doing so would surely make life easier for the organisers.

They would not need to find (or build) so many venues or hire so many officials and the number of athletes taking part could be significantly reduced.

The competitiveness of some of the sports at the recent Asian Games was questioned by critics ©Getty Images
The competitiveness of some of the sports at the recent Asian Games was questioned by critics ©Getty Images

Throughout this piece I have only talked about removing sports entirely, but that could just be a last resort; initially the organisers could (and perhaps should) just introduce tougher entrance standards.

In the men’s hockey, for example, I am unsure the competition benefitted from Hong Kong’s inclusion, who lost every match they played, including a staggering 26-0 defeat to India.

At the moment it seems a “bigger is better” approach is adopted at the Asian Games, but at the 2018 event, it seemed to me that this was done to the detriment of the competition itself.

Not only could shrinking the programme improve the quality of sport on show, reducing its size could also dramatically shrink the cost, which this year reportedly set Indonesia back $356 million (£272 million/€306 million).

It would make perfect sense, would it not?