It's about enduring allure

Having spent nearly four billion dollars towards infrastructure and other facilities for the 15th Asian Games, Qatar is all set to unfurl a fascinating sports carnival in Doha, beginning December 1, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Sport is acknowledged as the catalyst to sanctify humanity in the quest of excellence, peace and camaraderie. Based on this concept the visionaries evolved multi-sport competitions, giving them the contours of a festival, with rituals, dogmas, symbols and what not. Baron Pierre de Coubertin enunciated the elements of Olympism as a means to fashioning a society free of human aberrations. The message passed across globe as troubled continents like Asia picked up the theme to shape its destiny.

It was the urge to establish peace that paved the way for the launch of the Asian Games in 1951. And perhaps fittingly, India, smelling the fragrance of freedom in 1947, charted the course of the Games based on sports academic Guru Dutt Sondhi's idea. With the backing of the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru, India's Prime Minister then, the idea became a reality.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, inaugurates the 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi. Nehru played a key role in the launch of the Asian Games.-PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

After the initial hiccups that forced a one-year delay, the Asian Games was launched in New Delhi on March 4, 1951. With 11 nations — Nepal came into the fold eight days later — taking part in six disciplines, the inaugural Games was a success. Even China sent a team of observers to the Games.

From 1951 to 2006, the Asian Games traversed a fascinating course, mirroring the hopes and aspirations of the millions who constituted the largest segment of the world population.

As the sacred flame is all set to be lit at the gorgeous 50,000-seater Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on December 1, it is difficult to overcome the mood of nostalgia over the ebb and flow of the Continental Games.

From a mere 11 nations in 1951, the 15th Asian Games in Doha is expected to feature 45 countries. This is an illuminating illustration of the enormous strides made by the Games in five-and-a-half decades, and today it symbolises the technological progress and sophistication. Anyone visiting the sport city, the hub of the Doha Asian Games, will vouch for this.

Each Asian Games has proved as extraordinary as the other. However, a mention must be made of the Games hymn, which was played for the first time in Manila in 1955. The event also saw the introduction of photo-finish cameras. Tehran, in 1974, witnessed electronic time devices and underlined the fact that the Games stayed abreast of the latest innovations.

Any documentation of the Asian Games is incomplete without the reference to the two historic developments. First was the turbulence in the wake of the Sukarno Government's refusal to issue visas to athletes from Taiwan and Israel for the fourth Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1962. The IOC representative from India, G. D. Sondhi insisted on honouring the Olympic Charter, which prohibited any discrimination of race, religion, creed or colour. He threatened to declare the Games null and void even at the cost of risking his life. Predictably, the IOC endorsed his stand. The next was the protest engineered by West Asia, targeting athletes from Taiwan and Israel in 1974 (Tehran, Iran). Some competitors withdrew after refusing to compete with them.

In 1982 the Asian Games Federation acquired a new name as Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) with a new charter that kept Israel and Taiwan out of the ambit. Painful though such political posturing, it looked inevitable at that point of time to keep the Games from disintegrating. The then IOA (Indian Olympic Association) President Raja Bhalindra Singh played a crucial role in effecting this transformation.

China's entry at the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran took the competition to a new high. More sports were added to the list. Today the number of disciplines stands at 39.

China soon began to challenge the domination of Japan and Korea. The country finally established its hegemony in 1982. From a meagre 33 gold medals compared with Japan's 72 in 1974, China narrowed the leeway at the 1978 Games in Bangkok. And at the 1982 Games in New Delhi, it overhauled its traditional rival. Since then China's hegemony has been unquestioned.

As the host of the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, China touched a new high with a whopping tally of 341 medals — 183 gold, 107 silver and 51 bronze. At the last Asian Games in Busan (South Korea) China had a haul of 150 gold, 84 silver and 74 bronze medals, followed by South Korea (96-80-84) and Japan (44-74-72).

On November 12, 2000, when Doha won the bid to host the 15th Asian Games over Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, it emerged the first from the region and the second from West Asia (after Tehran) to host the Games. The Qataris have given the event a heady punch line — " The Games of Your Life."

Having spent nearly four billion dollars towards infrastructure and other facilities for the Asian Games, Doha is now the sports capital of the continent. Initial apprehensions of meeting the deadline notwithstanding, the city has fulfilled every infrastructure requirement.

A visit to the venues by this writer in May confirmed that everything would be in place for the opulent Opening Ceremony on December 1. The Qataris are all geared to express their vibrant ethos and hospitality to the estimated 10,000 competitors who would compete in 39 disciplines with chess and triathlon making their bow. "Orry", the Qatari oryx, one of the endangered species, is the Games' mascot.

Asia awaits the dawn of December 1, 2006, for Doha to unfurl a fascinating sports carnival.