HANGZHOU: After a year’s delay due to Covid-19, the biggest Asian Games in history, boasting about 12,000 competitors — more than the Olympics — officially open in Hangzhou on Saturday with hosts China eager to lift a country mired in economic gloom and athletes hoping to lay a marker before next year’s Paris Olympics.

With athletes including world and Olympic champions competing across a whopping programme of 40 sports from athletics, swimming and football to eSports and bridge, the Games will be China’s first mega-event since last year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, which were held under strict Covid protocols.

Following the scrapping of China’s “zero-Covid” policy in late-2022, Hangzhou promises to be a more festive event and a welcome diversion from the property market woes and high youth unemployment that have dogged the domestic economy.

Fans, athletes and officials will move freely between shiny, new stadiums in Hangzhou and five other Yangtze River Delta cities in one of the country’s most prosperous regions.

Like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, local organisers will hope Hangzhou can showcase the nation’s strength and that home athletes will put China top of the medals table as they have done at the last 10 editions.

Given the quality throughout China’s 886-strong delegation, there should be little doubt of the latter, at least.

The Games’ novelty factor will instead lie in new competitions, even if some stretch the definition of sport to its limits.

Organisers have jumped aboard the Olympics’ youth push, adding breakdancing — or ‘breaking’ — to the programme a year out from its Olympic debut at Paris.

Esports will be a medal event for the first time after being a demonstration event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Celebrity gamers like South Korea’s Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as ‘Faker’, will compete for seven esports golds across seven titles, including ‘League of Legends’ and ‘FIFA Online 4’.

The Games will be staged at 54 venues — 14 newly constructed — mostly in Hangzhou but also extending to cities as far afield as Wenzhou, 300 kilometres (180 miles) south.

The centrepiece is the “Big Lotus” Olympic stadium with a capacity of up to 80,000 where athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies will be staged.

President Xi Jinping will attend the opening ceremony and meet Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad there, along with other visiting leaders. Assad is making his first visit to ally China since the war erupted in Syria in 2011

Though organisers scrapped a controversial plan to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at Hangzhou, the continental bloc is riven with geopolitical tensions that could spill over in competition and in the stands.

Relations between Japan and China have plunged since Tokyo released treated radioactive water from a wrecked nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, and the Japanese Olympic Committee said it hopes its athletes will “avoid any trouble”.

North Korea is sending a nearly 200-strong team to Hangzhou, ending its isolation from global sport since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though women’s sport is effectively banned in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the nation will be represented by 17 female athletes in cycling, volleyball and athletics, funded by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Nine of the sports come with the additional prize of qualification for the Olympics incl­u­ding archery, boxing, breaking, hockey, sailing, tennis and water polo.

Hosts China have topped the medals table at every Asian Games since 1982 and are expected to do so again by the time the curtain comes down on October 8.

They should reign in swimming, with Qin Haiyang fresh from his heroics at the world championships, where he announced himself as the new undisputed breaststroke king. The 24-year-old swept all three men’s events and set a new world record in the 200m.

China’s butterfly queen Zhang Yufei will bid for a fourth gold in the pool at her third Asian Games to add to her two Olympic and two world titles.

The hosts’ newly crowned women’s world number one golfer Yin Ruoning will tee off in the individual and team events, five years after taking a team bronze for China at Jakarta.

In athletics, another of the most closely watched sports, India’s Olympic and world champion Neeraj Chopra will defend his Asian Games javelin crown.

His nearest competitor should be world silver medallist Arshad Nadeem from arch-rivals Pakistan and the countries are also on a collision course in cricket and hockey.

A feature of the Asian Games is that it includes sports that are a little more quirky than the Olympics. Xiangqi — also known as “Chinese chess” — and the ancient wrestling discipline of kurash are also on the menu.

Hangzhou, a city of 12 million people an hour’s bullet train from Shanghai, is famed in China for its ancient temples, gardens and its beloved West Lake.

It is also the unofficial home of China’s tech industry, notably the birth place of Jack Ma’s Alibaba. The Games will showcase some of the latest tech to come out of the city, including driverless buses, robot dogs and facial recognition.

Published in Dawn, September 23th, 2023

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