To purists, it is a non-competitive pastime in which beauty outweighs victory, but to others, Myanmar’s enigmatic ball game chinlone is a source of pride that has already brought the host nation a clutch of gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games.
A mesmerizing form of keepy-uppy with a cane ball among six players, the sport is one of a welter of disciplines unknown to the wider world, but popular within the region.
The roster at this year’s Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar is peppered with obscure non-Olympic sports, such as martial arts vovinam, wushu and pencak silat — an Indonesian fighting skill — as well as another more widely played cane ball game, sepak takraw.
The regional sporting extravaganza has returned to the country after a 44-year absence, marking another landmark in Myanmar’s opening up after decades cloistered by paranoid generals.
Desperate to showcase chinlone, Myanmar lobbied hard for its inclusion in the Games as a “culturally specific” sport, sparking allegations from outraged rivals that the hosts were cherry-picking events for its athletes.
While it is not alone in its use of feet to juggle a ball, chinlone’s uniqueness is revealed in its high kicks, balletic overhead touches and precise exchanges between players, who gracefully swap positions or rotate around a circle. It holds a hallowed place in Myanmar as a recreation casually played on roadsides everywhere, but also for its almost meditational quality, which is revealed through the concentration required to repeat the moves over long periods.
The game is so idiosyncratic that formal rules had to be crafted for the games in Naypyidaw, such as the introduction of an opposition, scoring system and defined playing area.
However, its inclusion posed a sizeable challenge to the other six nations who signed up for the discipline.
“They had to learn it from scratch,” said Boonchai Lorhpipat, deputy president of the international sepak takraw federation — under whose banner the sport has fallen, as it also uses a cane ball.
“Some of the basic skills are the same as sepak takraw, but the game is very different,” he said. Officials had to make the game “umpire-able,” he added, with rules including restricting the game inside two concentric circles, introducing scores across three sets and holding a parallel game to act as the opposition.
Fans have gloried in the staging of the game, filling a purpose-built indoor arena to cheer Myanmar’s men’s and women’s chinlone teams.
There are now calls for it to be included on a more regular basis in the Southeast Asian Games, which are held every two years.
Somewhat predictably, Myanmar hoovered up six golds, helping fire the country to an early lead in the medals table in a competition that inspires fierce regional rivalry, but goes all but undetected in the wider sporting world.
“As a Myanmar woman, I’m delighted to win this medal... I don’t have words to describe my happiness,” a jubilant Khine Win Thu said after claiming gold in a women’s event on Monday.
The team cruised past Thailand, with the ball hitting the floor only a handful times in the 30 minutes of play.
To chinlone masters, the sport is a metaphor of sorts for their country, which has undergone sweeping political and economic reforms since 2011.
“It’s a complex, delicate and difficult game,” Myanmar head chinlone coach Khin Muang Win said.