All eyes on Guangzhou

The countdown begins... Ships take part in the rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony of the 16th Asian Games as fireworks explode over the Haixinsha Island in Guangzhou in southern China's Guangdong province.-AP

China is ready to throw a grand party to the region, and mesmerise the world once again. The Chinese athletes would ensure that most of the gold stays at home. As it will be difficult to spoil the Chinese party, better be a part of it, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

China sets very high standards for itself in hosting mega sports events. It has the money, machinery and manpower to go with its outstanding organisational skills. And, more than anything else, it has the athletes who can rise to the occasion, as if their very lives were on the line, to make the whole exercise meaningful.

The passion for excellence, both in terms of organisation and performance, makes China a cut above the rest, a true world leader, the tag that it loves so much.

While London 2012 may have already given up any attempt at matching the Beijing Olympics that was organised at an estimated cost of about $45,000 million, China has decided to show the world that it can improve on Beijing, two years down the road, with the Guangzhou Asian Games. Just look at what's being planned for the opening ceremony on November 12!

The Olympics may be the ultimate event in the world of sports. But the Asian Games, too, is a huge challenge for the host, as it features 42 disciplines, 28 of them Olympic disciplines. This brings in about 40,000 people associated with the Games, including about 14,700 athletes, coaches and other team officials, 6,300 technical staff and around 10,000 media personnel.

Guangzhou has developed the Asian Games Town near the Lianhua Mountain in Panyu district to accommodate these people. And to project its might to the world, China has designed a separate arena for the opening and closing ceremonies, adjacent to the Pearl River.

Well, hosting the Asian Games may be no big deal in itself, as Bangkok has done it four times so far, including thrice in a 12-year spell from 1966 to 1978. China is doing it for the second time, after the 1990 edition in Beijing when it accounted for an astounding 341 medals, 183 of them gold.

Quite smartly, China had opted to develop another region, the Guangdong province, for the Asian Games, rather than take the easy way out by hosting it in Beijing. Billions of dollars have been invested in restructuring Guangzhou and improving its air and water quality.

Guangzhou has been a key commercial centre and port in South China, linking the country with the world. The medals, 3989 of them, have been appropriately designed with the theme Haishang Silu, ‘Maritime Silk Road,' signifying Guangzhou's rich role in history.

Many chemical plants and cement factories have been shut down or relocated to ensure that the Guangzhou residents can “enjoy sunshine in the day and count the stars at night.'' In fact, about 2000 restaurants have reportedly been closed for failing to meet cooking discharge standards.

China has developed 53 competition venues and 17 training centres. Most of them have been scattered over 12 districts, making it a bit inconvenient to ensure security, smooth traffic flow etc. But it has been deliberately designed to ensure good utilisation of the facilities in future by the citizens.

The aim is not just to have 16 glorious days, but to help the citizens maintain that enthusiasm for sports all through their lives, for a healthy and robust society. The region has about 60 per cent people pursuing sports at least at a recreational level. And it has many world and Olympic champions.

Eight new subway metro lines have been built so as to connect 80 per cent of the stadiums by train. About 40 major roads have also been improved. Hotels have been either built or refurbished to offer 14,000 guest rooms, but the rates have not been raised, to avoid discouraging visitors.

With a fitness drive for the citizens, Guangzhou has a sporting mood to appreciate the Games at home. China's athletes will make sure that the nation has a lot to cheer about, as they attempt to improve on the 315 medals won in the last edition in Doha. China had won 164 gold medals then, pushing Korea and Japan to a distant second and third spots, with 58 and 50 gold medals respectively.

After showing the world its sporting prowess, when China topped the medals table with 51 gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, with the gymnasts (10), divers (7), weightlifters (8) and shooters (5) accounting for the bulk, the host will be keen to make another breathtaking jump on the gold count in the Asian Games.

For a country that did not figure in the first edition in 1951 in New Delhi, and had only a modest collection of two gold medals in the second edition in Manila in 1954, China has indeed come a long way in the Asian Games.

Once it surged to the No.1 spot in the 1982 Games in New Delhi, displacing Japan that had ruled the region till then, China has been growing in strength.

The Chinese 110-metre hurdler, Liu Xiang, examines his shoe at a training session in Shanghai. During the Asian Games, Liu will be one of the closely watched athletes as he makes his comeback from an Achilles' tendon injury. The 27-year-old star stunned fans when he withdrew from the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the last minute, saying the pain was unbearable.-AP

In Seoul, in 1986, South Korea did offer a tremendous fight, and lost narrowly, 93 gold medals to 94, but China took a giant leap forward when it hosted the Games in 1990. Korea had the consolation of hanging on to the No. 2 spot, pushing Japan to the third place, narrowly in Hiroshima at 64 golds to 63, but has been doing so comfortably thereafter.

Kazakhstan (23 gold), Thailand (13), Iran (11) and Uzbekistan (11) had finished ahead of India that was placed eighth in Doha in 2006 with 10 gold medals, in a field of 45 countries.

India may not be able to assert its sporting excellence against the super powers of the region, but it lost a great chance to show its class and extend regional solidarity by refusing to field a cricket team when the game is making its debut in the Asian Games. It has indeed upset China which has been painstakingly conducting many promotional events in games like cricket and kabaddi to help its people appreciate the nuances better.

Luckily, the people of Guangzhou follow a more healthy game like badminton, and about three million play it in the region. It will be disheartening for them that Xie Xingfang, the former world No.1 woman badminton player will be a volunteer for the Games rather than spearheading the Chinese challenge. However, they will take heart from the fact that Xie Xingfang's boyfriend, Lin Dan, the world and Olympic champion, will be very much part of the programme to emphasise the Chinese domination in the sport.

China had matched Japan in winning 16 gold medals in swimming in the last edition, and could well grab more this time. Abhinav Bindra may have beaten the world and the Chinese in winning the world championship and Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2008 respectively, but the Indian shooters will have a tough time, trying to wrest that elusive gold medal in the Asian Games, mainly from the Chinese grasp.

Having promoted the Games in a brilliant fashion with shrewd planning and years of hard work, the organisers were able to stick to their principle of holding it with as mimimum an expenditure as possible. They did not waste too much money in making the Games Torch, ‘The Tide' — that has been designed to have a zero-extinguish record against rain, strong winds and even typhoon — travel across Asia. The Torch visited only 21 cities within the Guangdong province.

After the Asian Games, the organisers will have the Para Asian Games to handle from December 12 to 19, featuring about 3000 athletes, in 19 sports. With 15 of those games to be held in the London 2012 Paralympics, the Guangzhou show will act as a qualifying event for most.

Guangzhou citizens had turned up in record numbers to be volunteers, emphasising their involvement in making the Games a grand success. The whole of China is totally involved.

No wonder, a superstar athlete like Liu Xiang, has targeted a third gold medal in the Asian Games, saying, “Guangzhou means a lot to me and the Asian Games is the most important competition for me this year.''

In fact, the entire Chinese sports fraternity has targeted the Asian Games, and the nation's shooters refrained from competing in the World Cup Finals in Munich recently to train purposefully for the Guangzhou event.

The Games have already been a business success with 37 Asian countries reported to have invested in thousands of projects in Guangzhou.

The licensed merchandise is expected to fetch $450 million. Among the top of the merchandise is the miniature Asian Games torch, with a limited circulation of 16,000 sets.

The stage has been set, and all the tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies have been sold, weeks in advance.

China is ready to throw a grand party to the region, and mesmerise the world once again. The Chinese athletes would ensure that most of the gold stays at home. As it will be difficult to spoil the Chinese party, better be a part of it.