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Sepak Takraw

 The game of sepak takraw is relatively easy to master—that is, if you're able to extend your leg well over your head while jumping, block a small ball traveling at 97 km/h (60 mph) with a flying headfirst leap, and perform a full-speed backward cartwheel that is timed to spike the ball into an area the size of a badminton court.

These are some of the maneuvers regularly practiced by skilled participants of sepak takraw, which the United States Takraw Association calls “volleyball, gymnastics, and soccer all rolled into one.” ”A game of world-class takraw seems to defy gravity,” according to Sports Illustrated.

Sepak takraw is the organized, competitive version of a game that has roots in several Southeast Asian countries and many variations.

The sport, which originally involved simply kicking around a rolled-up ball of cane, has been around in one form or another for centuries. In 1965 at the South-East Asian Peninsula Games (SEAP, later SEA) it became a multinational competitive sport. That event helped spark interest in a sport whose enthusiasts would like to see it enjoyed by the world at large. “With soccer exploding in popularity in this country and the exhilarating foot fun of takraw, we expect a whole new tribe of takraw enthusiasts to spread across the United States,” said the U.S. Takraw Association in 1997.

 Several Southeast Asian countries claim sepak takraw as their own. The game has been played by the indigenous people of what is now Malaysia since the 15th century. Known as sepak ragasepak is Bahasa Malaysia for “kick”—the game was played in the courts of early Malaysian royalty. “There are many references to it in Malayan folklore,” according to the International Dictionary of Sports and Games. “When Malaya was under British rule the game was partly replaced by rugby, cricket, and other sports. However, it survived in rural surroundings where it was a favorite recreation of the Malay peasants.” The game survived because of its simplicity: All that was required was a woven ball, and the game could be played indoors or out. Its popularity was reinforced because it required many of the skills of soccer, which was also popular in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries.

In traditional Malaysian sepak raga, groups of males standing in a circle attempted to keep the ball of rolled rattan cane aloft with their feet and heads. Participants often count the number of hits they are able to make. That version of the game is still played on street corners and in villages in Southeast Asia.

The game was also traditionally played in the Philippines, where it is known as sipak, and in Laos, Singapore, Indonesia, and other countries. It also has roots in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Some evidence suggests that in 1889 a Burmese by the name of Maung San Hyin introduced the game, known as shin long in that country, to Thailand. The game took off in Thailand, where it was called takraw, Thai for “woven ball,” and developed into a few variations that are still played.

 Hoop takraw is one of the most difficult versions of the sport—and one of the most entertaining to watch. In hoop takraw, which is popular in Thailand, participants stand in a circle and hoops are suspended over the center of the circle. Each player makes a hoop out of his arms behind his back, and then he kicks the ball with his heel so that it goes through his arms and then through the hoops overhead. In another takraw version, participants keep the ball aloft and are judged by the audience for style and the difficulty of their moves.

To make the game more competitive, in 1945 Malaysian players began using a net, called a jaring, and playing the sport with rules similar to those of volleyball. Twenty years later the sport was set to be included in the SEAP Games, and officials from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Laos convened to adopt regulations for the sport. They adopted the name sepak takraw by combining the Malaysian and Thai names for the sport, and they created the Asian Sepak Takraw Federation.

In the early years of competitive sepak takraw, taller players dominated the sport. But eventually shorter players developed astonishing acrobatic moves, allowing them to spring into the air and spike the ball.

 High-level takraw (often known in the West as foot volleyball) is something to watch. Two teams of three players face each other across a net 1.55 m (5 ft 1 in) high. Competitors use their feet, legs, head, and shoulder to volley the ball, which is the size of a grapefruit, back and forth across the net. But that description is a bit like saying that in basketball, Michael Jordan throws a leather ball into an iron hoop. “Top players perform midair somersaults, kicking the ball when their legs are several feet above the net and then magically gyrating and landing upright,” Sports Illustrated said. “Takraw is lightning fast: A well-kicked spike can accelerate the ball to 145 km/h (90 mph); a good serve can reach 97 km/h (60 mph).”