By Nick Butler

Nick Butler in the Olympic StadiumJust two years after the inaugural Asian multi-sports event in Manila, teams from Siam and Malaya were forced to abandon their journey to Shanghai for the 1915 Far Eastern Games such was the danger of submarine attack during the ongoing First World War.

China, Japan and the Philippines however chose to ignore this danger and compete anyway and a trend of using friendly competition to overcome adversity has defined Asian sport ever since.

Unrest, through the Second World War and trouble in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East today, has indeed choreographed an Asian century which has strived for harmony within this discord.

The sheer size of the continent has compounded the difficulty. While in Europe everyone shares at least some semblance of cultural, linguistic or historical similarity what do countries as remote as Yemen and Timor Leste, the Maldives, Mongolia and Myanmar really have in common?

The answer to both of these questions is, of course, sport.

It was sport which gave a purpose in 1915. It was sport in the form of the "Ping Pong Diplomacy" which helped bring cordiality between West and East in the 1970s. It is sport today which gives hope to youngsters from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries.

Syrian athletes are able to have fun through sport despite the ongoing political troubles ©Syrian Olympic CommitteeSyrian athletes are able to have fun through sport despite the ongoing political troubles ©Syrian Olympic Committee

Attending the Asian Youth Games in Nanjing last August brought this point home to me.

Syria sent 42 athletes and officials across seven sports despite a 36-hour journey from Damascus which began with a 100 kilometre border crossing by bus to Beirut in itself taking a perilous six hours.

Due to the brutal conflict, now closing in on its fourth year, Syrians cannot compete internationally on home territory and have lost many of their foreign coaches and facilities due to unrest. Yet sport embraces and gives hope to people from different communities despite the troubles and, courtesy of 2,000 metres steeplechaser Fatima Raya, they won their very own gold medal in Nanjing.

The Syrian Olympic Committee have also organised a whole range of internal events for its youngsters.

Between June and August last year the "Mini National Olympiad" was held in the Western port city Lattakia, for example, with more than 2,000 male and female teenagers coming together to compete across 64 events encompassing 26 sports.

An "Olympic Day" was then held in Qunaitara City in August, where traditional sports, including tug of war,  seven stones, pursuit and catch as well as more orthodox ones were practised, while the following month a "Special Needs Sports Event" in Tartous saw the Olympic Committee working with local institutions to demonstrate "the importance of integrating the handicapped and special needs people in society."

Syrian Olympic Committee President General Mowaffak Joumaa has assured insidethegames that, in the realm of sport, no one cares what background or religion someone is from, and that sport "helps to develop the community especially in the current situation that confronts Syria nowadays." 

In Syria perhaps more than anywhere else sport can bring people together.

In Iraq, even more years of conflict has deprived the country of much sporting infrastructure as well as opportunities to compete. Even so, Muntadher Faleh won a pole vault silver medal in Nanjing at the Asian Youth Games, and they came perilously close to another podium finish in football.

It is clear that Iraq's national football team brings the people together like nothing else can and this was shown by the celebrations when they enjoyed a shock victory in the 2007 Asian Cup in Jakarta.

After having the joy of the beautiful game swallowed by the brutality of Uday Hussein, son of dictator ruler Saddam, when he presided over the sport, and at a time when sectarian violence was at an all time high in the vacuum left by Saddam's overthrow, the victory allowed Iraqis to feel that they had reclaimed football and saw Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians join together in a national celebration.

Iraq celebrate their shock victory at the 2007 Asia Cup in Jakarta ©Getty ImagesIraq celebrate their shock victory at the 2007 Asia Cup in Jakarta ©Getty Images

These stories resonate throughout the continent and can be emphasised in other areas: gender equality being one good example. Last year's triathlon World Championship final in London, for example, included in its line-up one Shirin Gerami, Iran's first female competitor in the sport who had personally lobbied in Tehran to be allowed to compete.

When speaking to the head of Iranian rugby Mirza Agha Hassan Beik, I was also fascinated to discover than women's rugby is more popular than the men's game in Iran.

Another such pioneer is Lebanese taekwondo player Cosette Basbous. Although she agonisingly missed out on Olympic participation, Basbous won an Asian title and twice came close to a historic World Championship medal before retiring two years ago.

"We had little financial support so personal effort had to be enough together with an 'all work and no play' mentality," she told insidethegames. "Although I didn't achieve all my dreams we had a Lebanese athlete at London 2012 and a medal is the next aim for our country."

Basbous has now translated her competitive skills to the coaching arena and was in charge of the Lebanese team at the Asian Youth Games. "It is very difficult for an athlete to leave their field and I was very depressed at first," she admitted. "But the thing which has kept me on my feet and alive is my students and all the young people. When they get good results the joy can be double and triple what I felt as an athlete." Hers is one of many such happy stories.

Asia has also produced great sportsmen: Indian cricketers, Japanese judoka, South Korean archers among many others. In recent times names like Sachin Tendulkar, Manny Pacquiao and in an Olympic sense Lin Dan, Hossein Reza Zadeh and Liu Xiang roll off the tongue.

China's Xiang Liu has faced hurdles that he has failed as well as cleared in his career...but he is on the biggest international Asian stars ©Getty ImagesChina's Liu Xiang has faced hurdles that he has failed as well as cleared in his career...but he is one of the biggest international Asian stars ©Getty Images

China's performances in Beijing revolutionised world sport at the highest level, and with the Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics in addition to the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup all to take place on Asian soil there is plenty more to come.

In an example of the importance of these events, as well as of the growing stature of disability sport in Asia, one of the most striking features of the International Paralympic Committee General Assembly which I attended in Athens in November was that the the three outright winners from the first round of Governing Board votes were three Asian candidates - Mohamed Alhameli of the United Arab Emirates, South Korean Kyung-won Na and Japan's Yasushi Yamawaki.

This outcome was ruffling feathers more than anything in the post-election cocktail parties. The latter two would help to further relations with the two Olympic host cities, it was thought, while the fact that the UAE is a regional Paralympic figurehead would help integrate the whole Middle East region.

It does not really need to be said that having high profile administrative figures such as these three is a significant boost for Asia - not to mention other leading figures such as South Korea's World Taekwondo Federation President Chungwon Choue, Taiwan's International Boxing Association President CK Wu and, of course, Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Association of National Olympic Committees leader Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah.

The fledgling race for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics also sees two Asian candidates - Almaty and Beijing - while other nations such as Turkmenistan have indicated willingness to become players in the world of hosting international sporting events in the future. 

As well as the worldwide attention that the two Olympics on Asian soil will bring it should also stimulate the already growing interest at a grassroots level across the continent.

This should be encouraged as much as possible.

The new Olympic sport of rugby, not traditionally seen as a major sport in Asia, is a good example of this after Asia, as with the rest of the world, played a major role in November's inaugural International Rugby Board (IRB) Conference and Exhibition in Dublin. The sport is set to be boosted further in the continent due to the fact that Japan will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Other than 14th placed Japan, Asian countries do not figure too highly on the world ranking list but if you look further down it is remarkable how many nation's from the world's largest continent indeed play the game.

Japan face Hong Kong in rugby sevens action at the Asian Youth Games in August ©ITGJapan face Hong Kong in rugby sevens action at the Asian Youth Games in August ©ITG

This has been boosted by the IRB's development growth participation programme "Get into rugby" which was launched in 2012. The scheme now exists in over 50 countries and embraces 150,000 new players in 1,000 global locations. As coach Simon Jones explained to insidethegames the sport seems to have filled a niche which was not particularly well catered for, and the success of the rugby sevens competition at the Asian Youth Games suggests the Asian market is as big as any other.

Jones is also a coach of the Indonesian rugby team. Despite the logistical handicap of bringing together players from 17,000 islands, the game has explanded hugely in recent years.
The national squad participate in the Asian Five Nations tournament every year, while training programmes are sent out regularly to players and clubs.

With women's rugby also on the Olympic programme for Rio 2016, Get into Rugby focuses on females as well as men, and there may be even more of a gap to plug in their game due to the lack of a dominant team sport such as football.

The likes of England's World Cup winner Will Greenwood attended a training week for Emirati schoolchildren last year ahead of the Dubai round of the HSBC World Sevens Series, while in Iran many measures are being taken to restore the game to the levels of popularity it enjoyed among the army and schools before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

There are now 6,000 players - with an aim to raise this to 50,000 - with tag and touch rugby being introduced in schools for under-12s, while effort is being made to incorporate athletes from the top Iranian sports of weightlifting and wrestling.

Rugby has got a long way to go to match the popularity of double Olympic champion Hossein Reza Zadeh in Iran...but is making progress ©Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty ImagesRugby has got a long way to go to match the popularity of double Olympic champion Hossein Reza Zadeh in Iran...but is making progress ©Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images

At a more general level problems do still exist in Asian sport, as in elsewhere in the world, and they should not be dismissed. Corruption allegations resulting in Indian athletes being unable to compete under their own flag at next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi, as well as cases of drugs, match-fixing and "age-doping", all remain challenges ahead. 

But this should not cloud the positives and Asian sport indeed remains best as an instrument to solve problems and bring unity.

Two other aspects of the Asian Youth Games reinforced this message even more powerfully. One was the cultural centre in the Athletes' Village where athletes from every nation came together to share national customs and peculiarities. This included, among other things, a "wall of love" with a theme of peace in Syria containing numerous blessings by athletes, staff and volunteers.

In what way other than sport can such a message of shared unity be conveyed?

The second thing was the sheer competitiveness and willpower but also the camaraderie of the young athletes on display - best encapsulated for me in an epic tennis final between Vietnam's Ly Hoang Nam and Jurence Mendoza of the Philippines. In a fashion belying two future champions the pair ran and battled for every point, despite the searing heat, for two hours and 48 minutes. Yet they also became friends and practice partners in the week and showed not a shred of animosity - to each other or themselves - throughout.

This good spirited battle to overcome adversity can be seen as a metaphor for Asian sport as a whole.

But for the best example of this we must return to the venue for next week's OCA General Assembly in the original home of Asian sport in Mendoza's Philippines.

Originally scheduled for November in Boracay Island, the Assembly was postponed due to the devastating impact of Typhoon Haiyan - which caused 6,000 deaths as well as untold destruction to supplies and infrastructure.

The General Assembly will take place only two months after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines ©AFP/Getty ImagesThe Olympic Council of Asia General Assembly will take place only two months after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines ©AFP/Getty Images

In his New Year's message, OCA President Sheikh Ahmad said: "Our hearts go out to the happy, joyous people of the Philippine Islands, and by holding our General Assembly in the capital city we want to show our unity, solidarity and support in these difficult times."

It would perhaps have been easier to hold the Assembly elsewhere but the right decision, the Asian decision, was to hold it in the Philippines, despite the typhoon.

In his message the Sheikh also highlighted the many other positive events lying ahead, including the Asian Beach Games in Phuket, the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing and the Asian Games in Incheon as well as the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, where Asian competitors will seek to overcome the adversity of dominant European teams.

From 1913, throughout the war-tainted 1915 Games and decades of upheaval thereafter up to the present day, this battle to overcome adversity has resonated beyond everything else.

This is something worth celebrating this week in Manila, and for the remainder of 2014. 

Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here