May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Jakarta’s Asian Games, yesterday and today

Published: Feb 28, 2017

Ignoring issues from the 1962 Games will not help solve the many problems faced by sport in Indonesia


Friederike Totier

18.08.18 is an auspicious date for the opening of the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia. Not only is the popularity of numerology responsible for the chosen date, the month of August also reminds many of the first international sporting event to have taken place in Indonesia, when the country hosted the 4th Asian Games in 1962. After 56 years, the Games are finally returning to Indonesia, evoking positive memories. Yet, the memory is very selective: which stories are told and which stories have been forgotten from the 1962 games? What are the implications of this for the current Indonesian society and the implementation of the 2018 Asian Games?

A commonly recounted narrative positions President Sukarno as the main driving force for bringing the Asian Games to Indonesia. After decades of state-sanctioned marginalization of Indonesia’s first president, his popularity has reached a new level since the fall of his successor Suharto. Sukarno’s contemporary image portrays him as a strong leader who fostered national pride and elevated Indonesia’s position on the stage of international politics. The mythology around Indonesia’s first president’s leadership qualities finds many admirers, including Alex Noerdin, the governor of South Sumatra. 

Noerdin was one of the main actors to make Palembang the co-host of the 2018 Asian Games. He cites Sukarno as a role model for his own ambition in establishing South Sumatra as Indonesia’s main 'sports-event destination'. Apart from Sukarno’s charismatic style of leadership, Noerdin also admires the building projects related to the 1962 Asian Games – such as the Gelora Bung Karno complex in Jakarta. Currently, Noerdin is pushing large-scale infrastructure projects in Palembang in preparation for the 2018 Games. The biggest project is the construction of the LRT connecting the airport and Jakabaring Sport City, where the 2018 games will be held. Furthermore, Noerdin dreams of a similar long-term impact for the sports venues in Palembang as that of the aforementioned Gelora Bung Karno complex, which remains in use.

Spirit of 1962

One of the themes for the 2018 Asian Games calls for the “spirit of 1962” to be relived and inspire the Indonesian people as well as the guests from other parts of the Asian continent. For a successful running of the 18th Asian Games, Noerdin believes it is important to portray Indonesia as a country with a sporting history, due in part to the perception that having a distinctive history of sporting achievement is a mark of a modern nation. The key targets of the 1962 event – modernization, development and spectacle – can be transferred to the vision for the upcoming Asian Games. 

Furthermore, repeated mentions of Indonesia’s sporting success in the form of medals during the 4th Asian Games has underlined an emphasis on good results in the forthcoming games. The Indonesian athletes of 1962 exceeded all expectations and secured second place on the medal tally. This is not a realistic target for the 2018 Games, however, considering the growth of the event from just 10 participating countries in 1962 to 45 in 2018. Nevertheless, as a host Indonesia is under pressure to improve the performances of its athletes compared to recent international events and to avoid adding to a long series of scandals related to sport in the country, including the recent suspension of Indonesia’s national football association by FIFA. Recent Asian Games as well as Southeast Asian Games have generated lacklustre results for Indonesia.

The medal tally of the last Asian Games, for instance, underlined Indonesia’s mediocrity (position 17). Whilst the country dominated the SEA Games from when it joined the event in 1979 until the end of the New Order, in the post-Suharto era sports organizations and athletes have rarely been able to satisfy expectations, with the exception of the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia. Thus, there is a deep feeling of disappointment and shame regarding the sporting failures of the most populous Southeast Asian country, which seems perennially unable to fulfil its sporting potential or invest adequately in training programs and infrastructure. Therefore, the memory of a more glorious past is necessary to rekindle a hope for improvement in the sports scene, not only on the medal tally but also in long-term strategies for boosting sport participation and ending corruption and mismanagement.

The 4th Asian Games was part of the process during which Jakarta transformed from a big kampung (village community) into a cosmopolitan, international city. The infrastructure projects included the famous Senayan Main Stadium, the city’s first modern hotel (Hotel Indonesia) and department store, and a new highway.  Modern sports venues made a significant contribution to Jakarta’s new image as a centre of Asian power, with the Gelora Bung Karno complex being the most prominent symbol.

The new logo of the 2018 Asian Games stresses the importance of the Bung Karno Stadium as a national symbol and an icon of Jakarta’s development into a modern city. The logo depicts an abstract version of the Bung Karno Stadium from an aerial view. It features the eight gates of the stadium and the red sun – the logo of the Asian Games – in the centre. Symbolizing the friendship among Asian countries, the logo carries the theme “Energy of Asia”. According to Indonesia’s Creative Economy Board (Bekraf), the abstract formation of the stadium, the different colours and the sun in the middle together represent three criteria: Asia, Indonesia and sports.

The 2018 Asian Games logo.


1962 Asian Games controversies

The “spirit of 1962” theme has emphasised only positive aspects of that Asian Games, overlooking controversial issues which almost led to a boycott of the event and had severe consequences for the host country. Also ignored is Sukarno’s use of the Asian Games for political objectives. Sukarno aimed to establish Indonesia as the leading country of the Non-Aligned Movement and to change the Asian Games into an event that followed the political agenda of the Movement. The two main targets were to strengthen solidarity among Asian nations and to position the Asian continent against Western dominance. Therefore, Sukarno evoked the “Bandung spirit” of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955 as a guideline for the 1962 Games. His idea, however, did not materialize as Indonesia’s decision to withhold visas from participants from Taiwan and Israel undermined solidarity among the members of the Asian Games Federation. The deliberate blurring of sport and politics made Indonesia the target of criticism and led to discussions about possible punishment through the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Asian Games eventually took place without major interruptions, yet in the aftermath, Indonesia faced exclusion from the IOC. Thus, Sukarno’s ambition to make the Asian Games a tool for his political agenda led to Indonesia’s isolation on the international sports stage. 

As Sukarno was not able to establish the Asian Games as the sporting event of the Non-Aligned Movement, he invented a new international event to serve his needs. The Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) challenged the IOC as well as those countries and institutions that Sukarno labelled imperialist, colonialist and capitalist. In Sukarno’s view, the GANEFO outshone the Asian Games and truly reflected the “Bandung spirit”. He thus aimed to establish a permanent GANEFO Federation and to stage regular events with the first one being in Jakarta, the capital of the core country of the new movement. The first GANEFO in 1963, however, remained a singular event as the political turmoil within Indonesia and China – the other supporter of GANEFO – changed the countries profoundly. The New Order Government subsequently suppressed the true, problematic history of the Asian Games, and to an even greater extent the GANEFO, covering up Sukarno’s manipulation of them to aid the advancement of his Non-Alignment policy. 

The current selective memory with regard to the 4th Asian Games follows the New Order perspective and glosses over controversies related to the Cold War context. Naturally, Indonesia’s current situation differs greatly from the 1960s; however, hosting the Asian Games might provide an opportunity to reconsider the country’s representation internationally as well as its national identity in the twenty-first century. On one hand, the “spirit of 1962” encourages pride in past hosting abilities and a commitment to repeating that success. On the other hand, the glorification of the 1962 Asian Games does not help to solve current problems related to the preparation process such as the tight schedule, infrastructure and traffic issues, and the dangers posed by mismanagement, corruption and Indonesia’s ongoing sporting failures.

Friederike Trotier ( is a lecturer and PhD student at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt. Her research focuses on sporting events and city marketing in Indonesia.


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Inside Indonesia 127: Jan-Mar 2017{jcomments on}

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