Why Australia should be interested in Asia

It is in Australia’s interest that water polo grows and gets more popular in Asia. If it does not, one day this game may seize to be an Olympic sport. There will be even less interest in it than now.

The recently held men’s Pan Pacs tournament in Melbourne would have been much more useful for the Australian men’s squads, if the teams of Brazil, China, Japan and New Zealand had been stronger.

Now that there is a strong Chinese team, the women’s events became much more interesting. It would have been exciting if there were a couple of more really strong Asian teams fighting for an Olympic berth like it is in the men’s tournament.

Imagine what cricket’s profile would have been like, if 1 billion Indians were not interested in that sport and Sachin Tendulkar was not coming to Australia for annual test-matches.

That is why I am writing about the Asian Men’s Olympic Qualification tournament (see my previous post re this event). It will be held Chiba, Japan from 23-29 January but there won’t be a team from the Republic of Uzbekistan. I just learnt they are not going there due to insufficient funding.

Many in Australia do not know about this Central Asian state. It emerged as an independent country in 1991 after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and has population of 26 million.

Its capital Tashkent was among the candidates for the right to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, but withdrew very early into the race. The main reason for submitting its bid was to gain some recognition of that country’s existence and new independence.

Indeed, it was a bit naive to believe it could compete with such global giants as Sydney, Beijing and Berlin. When asked about its competitors at the time, an AOC official, who was making a speech in 1992 at a function devoted to the Sydney’s bid, said he “…did not even know where it was…”

“SyDENy” deservedly won and Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was the International Olympic Committee’s President at the time, declared that it “…was the best ever Olympiad…” after the Games successful completion.

Describing their trip to Tashkent for the qualification match before the South African world championships, a Socceroo player said in a TV interview: “…one of the good things about playing football is that it takes you to strange places you’ve never heard of before…” That footballer described Tashkent as a neat place though. Next February the Australian Olympic football (soccer) team is going to Tashkent again to play a qualification match for the London Olympic games.

These comments were understandable. Not everyone is well versed in geography. Although staging the Olympics in 2000 showcased Australia and Sydney to the whole world in the most attractive way, there are still millions, if not billions, of people whose knowledge about this country is limited by what Paul Keating once colourfully described as the “…arse end of the world…” We are not offended.

I came to Australia with the USSR’s National team in 1985. We were impressed by what we saw. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” unfolded shortly after, I came back with my family as I wanted them to see one of the best countries in the world too. Hopefully, quality water polo and good results by the Australian men and women’s teams on the world stage would not only demonstrate the organisational advantages of the country’s sporting system but would also make more tourists want to visit it for the benefit of the country’s economy.

As a part of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan’s water polo evolved after World War Two. In 1975, for the first time in history, a Tashkent team, “Mehnat”, won the right to play in the High League of the USSR’s Water Polo Championships after winning the country’s lower grade National League. Mehnat’s best result in the High League was 6th out of 12 teams. In 1983, the Uzbek SSR’s team won Bronze at the Soviet Union’s Spartakiad leaving behind powerful teams of Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and others.

The Australian team once played Uzbekistan in Moscow and drew 6-all. It was at the Spartakiad in 1979 that was also used as a pre-Olympics-80 tournament with several foreign National teams participating. Another reason why I remember that match is that one of my Australian friends accidentally elbowed me and I had to play half of the match with a bursted ear-drum; it was very painful.

Those events were an equivalent of the country’s own Olympic games that were held every 4 years. Their status in the Soviet sports system was very high.

The Uzbek Water Polo School had its own traditions and distinctive style of play – highly mobile with skilful ball handling. Unfortunately, as was the case with all former Soviet Republics, the socio-economic upheaval of the 90s had a negative impact on the sport’s development in that part of the world.

Despite the difficulties, Uzbekistan’s water polo enthusiasts have managed to achieve good results in recent years; its junior male and female teams are among the best in Asia. In 2008, the junior men became the continent’s champions! The problem is there is not enough funding at present to support a senior team. Upon reaching this level, many talented athletes leave to play in other countries.

In Chiba, the Uzbek team would have been a competent competitor since the specialists, whose understanding of the game is derived from the great water polo school of the USSR, are still working there. I wish my countrymen well and hope to see them at the Olympic games one day!

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

2 Responses to Why Australia should be interested in Asia

  1. Bar-down. says:

    This is a sad situation for the Uzbec team, Australian waterpolo will also only receive minimal funding from the government. Wealthy sports derive there funding mainly from television networks fighting over the exclusive rights to broadcast the sport. For this to happen, there are two prerequisites needed.
    1. there has to be massive youth participation.
    2.the sport has to be “attractive” to television.
    This is a classic chicken and egg scenario, which is easy to state but very difficult to instigate.
    Also the young boy wearing the no 6 cap in the photo looks a bit lazy on his legs to me, was he any good?

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