Typically for this most Buddhist of countries, Burma’s most popular sport, Chinlone, is one with neither winners nor losers, requiring Zen-grade powers of concentration.
Burma’s most popular sport
A non-competitive team sport combining dance moves, martial art and great skill, chinlone is Burma’s national game. It’s played by groups of six people, traditionally using a ball woven from rattan, which participants moving in a circle pass between each other using stylized kicks or hits from six designated points of contact: the top of the toes, the inner, outer and soles of the feet, the heel, and the knee. Players take it in turns to go into the centre to “solo”, where try to pull off as many cool moves as they can. When the ball drops to the floor, the play is over and starts again.
Burma’s own “keepy-uppy”
Rather than winning or losing, the essence of chinlone is style. The object is not merely to keep the ball in the air for a long time, but the elegance and difficulty of the moves – some of the trickiest are kicks behind the back where the player is unable to see the ball. Form is everything. Just like in classical dance, there exist desirable positions for the torso, angles for the limbs and gestures for the hands.
Chinlone festivals are held across the country, the largest of them lasting weeks and attracting hundreds of different teams. The matches are held on circular, beaten-earth rings and accompanied by live commentary from an announcer who calls out the names of the players each time they strike the ball, and entertaining the crowd with witty word play as he does so. Live Burmese music provides an inspirational soundtrack: the best teams are able to kick and move in time, gaining extra admiration for keeping in rhythm with the orchestra.
Both men and women play chinlone, as do children, and there’s no age limit – it’s not unusual to see three or four generations of players in the same team. A solo performance version of the sport also exists called tapandaing. Travelling on luxury steamboats on the Ayeyarwaddy River you might catch a demonstration by one of the country’s top performers, such as Su Su Hlaing, Burma’s number-one woman Chinlone player, Ko Maung Maung, undisputed master of the notoriously difficult “mandala move”.