Building Asian Nations through Sports Events

Building Asian Nations through Sports Events (1913-1974): The Far Eastern Championship Games, the Western Asiatic Games and the Early Asian Games                                                                                                                               


Stefan Hübner


My study analyzes entangled transfers of norms, values, and images both between Asia and the West and within Asia, based on the example of three Asian sports events: the Far Eastern Championship Games (1913-1934), the Western Asiatic Games (1934), and the early Asian Games (1951-1974). The goal in doing so is to produce new insights into Western and Asian perspectives on civilization, "modernization", development, regional and national identity, and on the public staging of shifting power relations in Asia and between Asia and the West.


My research shows how international sports events and amateur norms and values associated with them, such as individual self-control, equality, non-discrimination, fair play, team spirit, obedience of duly-constituted authority, practical efficiency, and belief in personal effort instead of luck or fate, were initially transferred to East Asia by American members of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) as part of the "Western Civilizing Mission". From the 1880s on, industrialization and urbanization led to a boom of muscular Christian ideas in the United States. The growing prevalence of office work over hard physical work on farms, "over-civilization" (of which nervousness and neurasthenia were considered symptomatic) and the perception of big cities as hotbeds of vice and crime provided fertile ground for warnings of a "degeneration of the white Protestant Anglo-Saxon race". As a result, "body as temple" theology turned Jesus into a "manly" man, strong in faith, but also equipped with a muscular body hardened by his nomadic life as a missionary in the Holy Land. Following the American expansion into the Pacific, including the annexation of the Philippines (1898), the American YMCA engaged in overseas missionary and educational activities. The YMCA intended to "uplift" Asian societies to white American Protestant civilizational standards by spreading amateur sports norms and values based ideals of Christian internationalism, Christian egalitarianism, and a "Protestant Work Ethic".


During the 1920s, Asian sports officials and politicians nevertheless gained control over the Far Eastern Championship Games, which led to an "Asiatization process" that was characterized by increasing pan-Asian rhetoric and by the rejection of the Christian background of amateur norms and values.  Simultaneously, this "Asiatization process" was the outcome of individual nationalization processes driven by anti-colonial nationalisms that to a certain degree undermined pan-Asianist rhetoric and contributed to the formal breakdown of the Games in the 1930s. The Far Eastern Championship Games, held on ten occasions and being the biggest regional sports event during the interwar period, had a strong impact on "modernizing" East Asian societies, including the emancipation of women. In contrast, the Western Asiatic Games, hosted only once in 1934 in India (New Delhi and Patiala), had a much lower impact due to a lack of money and organizational experience.


Following the Second World War, the Asian Games were founded, bringing together West and East Asians in New Delhi in 1951. The project of "modernizing" Asian societies through the spreading of amateur sports was thus continued and the Games were declared a symbol of peaceful Asian cooperation during a period characterized by Cold War tensions and (violent) decolonization. However, the events hosted in the Philippines (1954) and in Japan (1958) changed the regional shape of the Games to match that of those countries which were pro-Western or neutral in the Cold War. Moreover, the Japanese aspiration to host the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo served to greatly increase the importance of the staging of the Games, meaning that large-scale nation-branding became a second aim of the organizers.


The tendency to use the Games to brand the host country as successfully undergoing a large-scale "modernization" and development process, though without complete Westernization, increased during the following events: Indonesia (1962), Thailand (1966 and 1970) and Iran (1974). The Games in various ways also promoted the personality cults of presidents and monarchs, while both in 1962 and in 1974 the pan-Asian and pro-Chinese rhetoric surrounding the Games acquired a notable anti-Western element. Finally, in 1974, the inclusion of China, but also of many Arab countries, during the first Asian Games event that took place in West Asia marked an important turning point in the regional shape of the Asian Games.


The Research Project was funded by:


  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG): "Asianismen im 20. Jahrhundert" (Asianisms during the Twentieth Century); Project Leaders: Prof. Dr. Marc Frey / Prof. Dr. Nicola Spakowski
  • German Historical Institute Washington
  • German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo
  • Jacobs University Bremen
  • Bundeswehr University Munich
  • Kautz Family YMCA Archives (University of Minnesota)




  • Stefan Huebner, The Far Eastern Championship Games, the Early Asian Games, and the Emergence of Modern Asia (1913-1974). Muscular Christianity, National Development, and a Rising East. Singapore: NUS Press (in print: first half 2016).

  • Stefan Hübner, “Uniting the East via Western Amateur Sports Values: Asian Integration, the Olympic Ideal and the Far Eastern Championship Games,” in: Marc Frey / Nicola Spakowski (eds.), Asianisms, Regionalist Interactions, and Asian Integration. Singapore: NUS Press (in print: October 2015)

  • Stefan Hübner, “Muscular Christianity and the ‘Western Civilizing Mission’: Elwood S. Brown, the YMCA and the Idea of the Far Eastern Championship Games,” in: Diplomatic History  39,3 (2015), 532-557.

  • Stefan Hübner, “‘Uplifting the Weak and Degenerated Races of East Asia’: American and Indigenous Views of Sport and Body in Early Twentieth-Century East Asia,” in: Walter Demel / Rotem Kowner (eds.), Race and Racism in Modern East Asia. Vol. 2: Interactions, Nationalism, Gender and Lineage. Leiden: Brill, 2015, 196-216. PDF excl. bibliography; copyrigt: Brill Publishers

  • Stefan Hübner, Building Asian Nations through Sports Events (1913-1974). The Far Eastern Championship Games, the Western Asiatic Games and the Early Asian Games. Ph.D. thesis, Jacobs University Bremen, 2013/14.

  • Stefan Hübner, “The Fourth Asian Games (Jakarta 1962) in a Transnational Perspective: Japanese and Indian Reactions to Indonesia’s Political Instrumentalisation of the Games,” in: International Journal of the History of Sport 29,9 (2012), 1295-1310.

  • Further publications are in preparation

The image of the "New Olympian", representing Westernized Asians (First Far Eastern Championship Games, Manila 1913)

(Source: Philippines Free Press)


A gold medal depicting an angel (or Nike, though without her typical items), symbolizing muscular Christianity (Third Far Eastern Championship Games, Tokyo 1917)

(Source: Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Museum)


A gold medal showing a "modernized" Buddhist deity engaging in sports, probably an Asura / 阿修羅 (Ninth Far Eastern Championship Games, Tokyo 1930)

(Source: Dai-9kai Kyokutō Senshuken Kyōgi Taikai hōkokusho)


A trophy presented by Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, modeled after the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, promising a "New China" (Ninth Far Eastern Championship Games, Tokyo 1930)

(Source: Japan Advertiser)


A photo featuring two members of the Chinese female swimming team, representing "modern girls" and "new women" (Tenth Far Eastern Championship Games, Manila 1934)

(Source: Philippines Herald)




A gold medal depicting the Ashoka Chakra and the India Gate, some of newly independent India's national symbols (First Asian Games, New Delhi 1951)

(Source: First Asian Games New Delhi 1951. Official Souvenir)



A Cariñosa dance performed during the opening ceremony, which showed the Philippines' broad cultural heritage (Second Asian Games, Manila 1954)

(Source: Second Asian Games Manila, Philippines: May 1-9, 1954: Official Report)

The Aryamehr Stadium (now: Azadi Stadium), named after one of the Shah's titles ("Light of the Aryans") and representing Iranian development (Seventh Asian Games, Tehran 1974)

(Source: Teheran 1974. Seventh Asian Games. Bulletin No. 3)


The scoreboard, displaying the Iranian royal family and thereby supporting their personality cult (Seventh Asian Games, Tehran 1974)

(Source: Official Report of the Seventh Asian Games Teheran September 1-16, 74)




A Zurkhaneh demonstration during the opening ceremony, illustrating Iran's ancient physical culture (Seventh Asian Games, Tehran 1974)

(Source: Official Report of the Seventh Asian Games Teheran September 1-16, 74)