NEWTON – You may not have heard of sepak takraw, but on the other side of the world, it’s a phenomenon.
The centuries-old sport, originating in Southeast Asia, has an extensive following in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Also known as kick volleyball, sepak takraw pits teams of three against each other in a lightning-quick game that requires accuracy, speed and excellent flexibility.
"You have to do a lot of stretching," laughed Miles Apdon, a former head coach of one of the Philippines’ national sepak takraw teams. "You cannot get your right foot up if you’re not stretchable."
"Sepak" is Malay for "kick," while "Takraw" is Thai for the handwoven ball made out of rattan, used in more traditional versions of the game.
The sport combines elements of soccer and volleyball, and draws a number of parallels from the latter sport, such as not letting the ball touch the ground.
There are three positions: Tekong (server), Killer (striker) and Feeder (setter). The tekong tries to serve the ball into the opposing team’s court without allowing them to hit it back. The feeder sets up the ball for the striker to hit it over the net.
Teams, known as "regus," typically play in a best-of-three sets format, with each set ending when one team has reached 21 points. Points are awarded for getting the ball to hit the ground on the opposing team’s side of the court, as well as for various faults throughout the game, such as missing the ball on a serve or distracting an opponent during service.
Unlike volleyball, the same player can touch the ball more than once, but they still maintain a total of three contacts per possession. And you can’t use your hands.
"You can use the head, the thigh, your knee – all the parts of the body, except the arms," said Apdon, noting that touching the ball with your arms earns the opposing team a point.
Apdon got into the sport in the mid-1980s and moved up to coach one of his home country’s international teams in the city of Puerto Princesa. He has wanted to start a club for the sport since he arrived in Canada last year.
The sport has been picked up in parts of Europe and Australia, and international organizers are pushing to get it included in the Olympics, but Apdon and his son, M.J., who plays as a tekong and has competed internationally for the Philippines, said it just hasn’t caught on in Canada.
"I tried to search for people playing here in Vancouver, but I can’t find any," said M.J. Apdon said he hopes to work with the Saskatchewan-based Sepak Takraw Association of Canada to bring more prominence to the sport in North America, with dreams of making a national team on an international level.
He said he’d like for local elementary schools to introduce the sport and encourage kids to grow up with it, the same way he learned how to play in the Philippines.
"Maybe this is the time that we can share, we can teach the kids the sepak takraw game," he said. "It’s a really amazing game."