After a year's delay due to COVID-19, the 19th Asian Games officially opens 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 more than 12,000 athletes from 45 nations competing across a whopping programme of 40 sports, 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'.
After being dropped from the 2018 programme, cricket returns at Hangzhou in the Twenty20 format to give the sport another push before its expected addition to the Olympics for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
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).
Indian Sports Minister Anurag Thakur on Friday cancelled his upcoming visit to Hangzhou as a mark of protest against China's decision to deny visas to three wushu players from Arunachal Pradesh while the OCA is actively pursuing the matter with the Chinese authorities.
Nine of the sports in Hangzhou come with the additional prize of qualification for the Olympics including archery, boxing, breaking, hockey, sailing, tennis and water polo.Some of the events lack big names due to scheduling clashes but there is a sprinkling of stardust in swimming, athletics and gymnastics, and heaps of it in the table tennis, badminton and weightlifting competitions, Asia's traditional strengths.
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.
Indian fans will cheer on their first Olympic athletics champion when Neeraj Chopra throws in the javelin.In the background, a less edifying competition will play out as officials jockey for power and influence in the wake of the nullified presidential election at the OCA, the continental governing body that runs the Games and has major global clout.
The IOC refused to recognise the July election won by the Kuwaiti Sheikh Talal Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, alleging the candidate's brother Sheikh Ahmad, a former OCA president for decades, had an "undeniable impact" on the result. With the election under review and billions of dollars of sports funding in play, IOC President Thomas Bach is expected to be a prominent guest at the Games' opening ceremony on Saturday.
The opening ceremony is scheduled to begin at at 5.30 pm (IST).