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China’s Xi declares biggest-ever Asian Games open

HANGZHOU: A general view as performers take part in the opening ceremony of the Asian Games at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium on Saturday.—AFP

Published in Dawn, on Sep 24th, 2023,

HANGZHOU: Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the Covid-delayed 19th Asian Games in the Eastern city of Hangzhou during a spectacular and at times raucous ceremony on Saturday, launching a two-week sporting extravaganza that boasts more athletes than the Olympics.

Spectators in the city’s 80,000-capacity Hangzhou Olympic stadium, also known as “the Big Lotus”, let out a huge roar as Xi was introduced and walked in to sit with visiting dignitaries including International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Games, delayed a year due to China’s measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, will be the country’s biggest sporting event in over a decade in several metrics, with around 12,000 athletes from 45 nations competing in 40 sports.

After the Chinese flag was brought out, the first team out was Afghanistan, whose female athletes, based abroad due to sport for women being banned by the Taliban, walked together with their male counterparts. Their flagbearers carried the tri-colour flag for Afghanistan which is used by international resistance movements and shunned by the Taliban.

Assad, on his first visit to ally China since the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, stood up and applauded as his country’s team entered the arena and the crowd cheered when his image flashed up on a big screen.

Several teams including Chinese Taipei were vocally welcomed by the spectators, but none more than the home team, whose athletes are expected to dominate the medals table once again.

They also mark a stark contrast to the cheerless Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics which took place under China’s strict zero Covid conditions which lasted for nearly three years from January 2020 until late 2022.

“Finally we can gather for the 19th Asian Games,” Raja Randhir Singh, acting president of the Olympic Council of Asia, told the crowd to more cheers. “The one-year postponement was unprecedented in OCA history,” he added.

In an often spell-binding ceremony intended to burnish Hangzhou’s status as one of China’s centres of technology and creativity, dozens of balletic dancers hovered above a digitally-projected lake in the wake of a flotilla of sail-boards.

In a modern take on the traditional lighting of the cauldron, a huge, digitally animated torchbearer “ran” the length of the stadium before settling to loom above the actual torch-bearer, China’s Olympic champion swimmer Wang Shun.

In synch, the pair lit a huge, multi-pronged cauldron, prompting another bout of cheering and soon after, a digital firework display.

Organisers have not disclosed spending on the Games, though the Hangzhou government has said it spent more than 200 billion yuan ($30 billion) in the five years through 2020 on transport infrastructure, stadiums, accommodation and other facilities.

Organisers hoped a high-tech opening ceremony on Saturday will help drum up excitement for the Games. Interest at home has been muted as the economy sputters and some question the cost of hosting the mega-event.

China’s status as a sporting and business destination took a severe hit during the pandemic, when snap lockdowns and strict travel rules saw almost all international events cancelled in the country.

The event has been rocked by a row between New Delhi and China over three Indian martial arts fighters, with a trip to the city by India’s sports minister cancelled on Friday. China denied Indian claims that the trio had been barred from entering the country.

Games athletes will fight for medals in Olympic staples such as athletics, swimming, football, gymnastics and cycling.

ESports will make its debut as a medal event at the Games, in what is seen as a step towards inclusion in the Olympics.

There will also be regional specialities including dragon boat racing, the Chinese martial art wushu and kabaddi.

Nine sports — among them boxing, break dancing and tennis — will serve as Asia qualifiers for next year’s Paris Olympics.

A sprinkling of world and Olympic champions adds some stardust, including India’s javelin king Neeraj Chopra, Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim and Chinese swimming royalty Qin Haiyang and Zhang Yufei.

Olympic Council of Asia honorary life vice-president Wei Jizhong said having so many sporting disciplines was about giving opportunity to as many athletes as possible.

“We are open to all. This means our Games are not concentrated only for elite sportspeople,” he said.

Although the Games officially opened on Saturday, sports such as football, cricket, volleyball and table tennis had already begun.

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.

Published in Dawn, September 24rd, 2023