Stage set for some lively action

A. VINOD

FIFTY-ONE years after the first seeds were sown in New Delhi, the Asian Games have indeed come a long way. And as the 14th edition of the quadrennial extravaganza is all set to get under way in Busan, South Korea, the event is expected to soar to greater heights as the Games have already gained the distinction of being the first-ever to have a full-house attendance.

People walk under the entrance archway of the 14th Asian Games athletes' village. Around 12,000 athletes from 44 nations will occupy the 19 apartment buildings during the two-week competition.-AFP

Busan, only the second non-capital city to host the Games after Hiroshima in 1994, will witness the presence of delegations from all the 44 nations under the fold of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and a record 12,000 athletes competing in 38 sports events for 419 gold medals. Most notable among them, should be the attendance of a 318-member strong North Korean contingent for the first-time ever on South Korean soil and the maiden participation of East Timor, the world's newest country which became independent on May 20 this year and has now been provided with a temporary membership by the OCA.

Busan is sure to be remembered as the venue which paved the way for the possible unification of the two Koreas at a later date. The two nations have remained technically at war through the past half-a-century in the absence of a peace treaty at the end of the 1950-53 war, caused by the hostilities following the 1945 division of the country into two halves at the end of World War II. In fact, this spirit of understanding and mutual cooperation that the two countries have now worked out to ensure the North Korean presence in the Games is particularly significant when viewed with the objectives laid down by the founding fathers of this event.

Indeed, the ambition of the long forgotten G. D. Sondhi, the prime-mover behind the concept of having a sporting festival for the youth of the continent on the same lines of the Olympic Games, had always been to break down the barriers of race, religion and ideology and to promote peace and harmony among the Asian countries. That this has been achieved within a span of 50 years after Sondhi's dream first materialised at New Delhi in 1951 is a testimony to the larger vision shared by the then top Asian political leadership, including the late Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Flames of torches lit at Mt. Baekdu in North Korea and Mt. Halla in South Korea being combined at a ceremony at Imjinkak, west of Seoul. The two nations have worked out a spirit of understanding and mutual cooperation to ensure the North Korean presence in the Games.-REUTERS

Perhaps, what motivated Nehru and his peers in lending wholehearted support to this noble movement was their realisation that sport as such could be a potent balm for almost all the Asian countries which at that stage had emerged from the shackles of colonial rule and that the concept by itself could provide the youth of the continent with a proper forum to interact and compete on an even keel at least once in four years. True, that these lofty ideals were often sacrificed through the years and the Games were subjected to several unethical practices and prejudices time and again.

But, thankfully, those are things of the past as the full-house attendance in Busan seems to indicate and hopefully this edition should turn a new leaf in the history of the Games even as it keeps up the spirit of healthy competition among member-nations of the OCA in full flight. And keeping in tune with the two themes coined in connection with the coming Games - 'New Vision, New Asia' and 'One Asia, Global Busan' - and more importantly, the quest of Asian sport itself to gain global acceptance and world-wide excellence. At least, the citizens of Korea's second largest city deserve that much, now that they have shown their enterprise to fight back the odds and hold a second major international sports festival within a span of four months.

Despite it being one of the 10 South Korean venues where the first-ever World Cup football on Asian soil was successfully conducted, there were always doubts about the capacity of the Busan Asian Games Organising Committee (BAGOC) to raise the required funds for the Games though it had already invested as much as US$ 1 billion for the construction of 12 new sporting facilities including the Busan Asian Games main stadium and in the renovation of 31 existing stadia. If the BAGOC was quick in dispelling such fears about its ability to raise the required funds through sponsorship, what had been testing its top leadership more recently was the trail of devastation left behind by 'Typhoon Rusa' that hit the Korean peninsula in all its fury, causing considerable damage to the Asian Games hockey stadium and several other facilities.

Members of the South Korean special police practice martial arts during the launching ceremony of the guards team for the Asian Games at the main stadium in Busan.-REUTERS

However, the Koreans have once again been quick to prove their real worth, moving in swiftly to repair the damage and raise their level of preparedness in hosting the prestigious Games. As a matter of fact, the 16-day event, which is scheduled to run from September 29 to October 14, could be termed as one created by the people of Busan. They have remained united as one all along and helped the authorities concerned in their efforts to ensure the success of the Games. Indeed, the enthusiasm shown by the local populace through the last seven years, ever since Busan overwhelmingly won the vote to host the event, could be gauged from the fact that there were 37,000 applicants for the 18,000 volunteer positions and as many as 7,655 people applied to take part in carrying the Games torch, exceeding the requirement by more than 40 per cent.

The wish of the people of Busan for friendship and unity among Asian countries is also symbolised well in the mascot for the Games, a seagull named 'Duria'. Drawn in thick black and free flowing lines, the name of the mascot is a compound word made from the words, 'durable' and 'Asia'. Duria, interestingly, is also similar in pronunciation to the Korean word, 'Duri' meaning 'you and me'. Among the disciplines, body building will mark its entry in the Asian Games agenda for the first time in Busan where Modern Pentathlon would also stage a comeback after being left out in Bangkok, four years ago.

Independent observers are somewhat aghast about the gigantic feature of the Games though they admit that the event is invested with far more importance now when compared to the past. Particularly after last year's attack on the World Trade Center and the subsequent war fought on Afghan soil against the much-hated Taliban. Incidentally, Afghanistan is also slated to make a return to the Games after missing out the last edition in Bangkok. But the need to limit the content of the Games cannot be overlooked by the OCA which needs to put a stop to the growing clamour for increasing the number of disciplines with each passing edition.

From just six disciplines at New Delhi in 1951 to 38 in Busan, the Games have become increasingly unfeasible, at least financially, so much so even the more developed nations in the continent could, in the long run, find themselves hardpressed to keep up their commitment to host the extravaganza with all the attendant pomp and grandiose. This is so because of the vast changes that have occurred on the economic front through the last few years and wherein money-spending is now dictated by the financial markets and not by policy-makers alone. Given such a tricky situation, the OCA would be in a better position if it could see through this problem straightaway rather than wait for things to go out of control.

The Lt. Governor of Delhi Vijay Kapoor (third from right) and IOA President Suresh Kalmadi (fourth from right) handing over the Asian Games torch to former Olympian Gurbachan Singh Randhawa and Karnam Malleswari, watched by (from left) IHF President K. P. S. Gill, South Korean Ambassador Kwon Soon Tae, Sports Minister Vikram Verma and OCA Secretary General Randhir Singh, at the National Stadium in New Delhi.-V. SUDERSHAN

Busan could also open up a new chapter in the history of Asian sport, and even that of world sport itself, if instances of drug abuse are not reported from here. With newer and sophisticated methods in place to detect such attempts by anyone to gain an upperhand, this menace can be controlled in an effective manner. That the scourge of drugs continues to haunt the Asian sporting scene is something which cannot be wished away even if there are no detections of doping during the Games. The OCA is thus vested with an important role not only in ensuring the principles of fairplay but also in educating the sportspersons about the many side-effects that constant drug abuse could bring about in their daily life.

On the competition front, it is hard to visualise anything other than China eventually topping the medals tally in the same manner in which that country has dominated through the last five editions. The Chinese are certain to arrive in South Korea with their fingers crossed given the fact that they were pressed hard to retain the top spot during the 1986 Seoul Games by the host country. A lone gold had separated China and South Korea then before the Chinese retained their sway as the front-ranking nation but with a less number of medals than accumulated by the South Koreans.

The Chinese would be coming to Busan with a bunch of young athletes who would be exposed to the rigours of international competition. This experience should help them in their campaigns at the 2004 Olympics to come off in Athens and the 2008 Games to be staged on their home turf, in Beijing. Already, at least more than one attempt has been publicly made by the top-ranking Chinese officials to lessen the expectations of the fans back home with matter-of-fact statements that the Chinese campaign at Busan could possibly run into rough weather against the home advantage sure to be enjoyed by the South Koreans.

However, for all that had been said and written in recent times, the 900-odd Chinese contingent could still be the focus of attention as it attempts to prove itself as the dominant nation in Asian sport for a sixth time running. The South Koreans, too, have had no hesitation in acknowledging the Chinese supremacy pegging their estimation to 83 golds which, though would mark an improvement over the 65 golds that they picked up in Bangkok, could still help them finish only second behind China.

The emphasis of the South Koreans besides running close to China would be once again to stamp their class over the Japanese, who had ruled the roost between 1951 and 1978 as the super power of Asian sport. The Japanese would consider themselves lucky if their dream of gaining as many as 70 golds meets with success in Busan. With the three top spots thus almost decided even before the Games are on, one question which springs up is where would India figure in the final medals tally.

True, the Indians had an euphoric return from the Commonwealth Games in Manchester after picking up their richest haul from any multi-event discipline. But to expect them to replicate the same performance in Busan would be nothing more than a foolhardy exercise. In Bangkok, the Indians were placed ninth with a tally of seven golds, 11 silvers and 17 bronzes and it would be an added bonus if they are able to finish at least a notch ahead in Busan with a slight improvement in their overall collection. The crumbs of comfort for India are likely to come from athletics, shooting, women's weightlifting, billiards, boxing, tennis and kabaddi though the icing on the cake would certainly be a second straight gold in hockey.

Indeed, hopes are those which keep the dreams alive. Over to Busan then for some lively and spellbinding action.