23rd September 2023 – (Hangzhou) Chinese President Xi Jinping will officially declare the Asian Games open at a grand ceremony in Hangzhou on Saturday (Sep 23), marking the commencement of a sporting event that surpasses the Olympics in terms of athlete participation.
Delayed by a year due to China’s stringent zero-COVID measures, the Games will witness over 12,000 competitors from 45 nations and territories across Asia coming together in the eastern city to compete in 40 sports.
The opening proceedings will be initiated by President Xi in one of China’s most prosperous regions, with esteemed guests, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in attendance.
Nevertheless, an unwelcome guest in the form of rain threatens to dampen the occasion, as a persistent drizzle lingers over the event.
Syrian President Assad, on his first visit to China since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, will join leaders from ally countries such as Cambodia, Kuwait, and Nepal at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium, as reported by state media.
Jung-Woo Lee, a sport policy expert at the University of Edinburgh, suggests that the Games are likely to serve as China’s post-pandemic demonstration of soft power, with a fully packed stadium and the presence of political and business leaders from Asia.
However, the event has already encountered a dispute between China and New Delhi. India’s sports minister’s planned visit to Hangzhou was cancelled on Friday after three women martial arts fighters from the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh claimed they were denied accreditation, a claim disputed by China.
Arunachal Pradesh, located in Northeast India, is claimed nearly in its entirety by Beijing, which refers to it as “South Tibet”.
China’s reputation as a sports destination suffered during the initial three years of the COVID-19 pandemic when sudden lockdowns and travel restrictions led to the cancellation of nearly all international events in the country.
The host nation, China, is the clear favourite to top the medals table, boasting a delegation of nearly 900 athletes, while Japan and South Korea are expected to vie for second place.
Notably, North Korea has sent a team to this edition of the Games in a bid to end nearly three years of isolation from the global sporting arena.
Medals will be contested in sports ranging from athletics, swimming, and football to bridge, along with a host of regional specialities such as dragon boat racing, Chinese martial art wushu, and kabaddi, a popular contact sport on the Indian subcontinent.
Additionally, nine sports, including boxing, breakdancing, and tennis, will serve as Asian qualifiers for the Paris Olympics next year.
A sprinkling of world and Olympic champions will add star power to the event, including India’s javelin prodigy Neeraj Chopra, Qatari high jumper Mutaz Barshim, and Chinese swimming sensations Qin Haiyang and Zhang Yufei.
Wei Jizhong, honorary life vice-president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), stated that the inclusion of numerous sporting disciplines aims to provide opportunities to as many athletes as possible.
“We are open to all. This means our Games are not concentrated only for elite sportspeople,” he remarked.
“When athletes from developing countries win medals, it brings happiness to their people, their government, and they lend support to sports. Sport holds a high social standing. So, I believe the OCA’s policy is successful.”
The Games will take place across 54 venues, including 14 newly constructed facilities, primarily in Hangzhou but also extending to cities as far as Wenzhou, 300km south.
The centrepiece of the event is the “Big Lotus” Olympic stadium, with a capacity of up to 80,000, where athletics, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, will be held.
Hangzhou, a city of 12 million people located just an hour away from Shanghai by bullet train, is known as China’s unofficial tech hub. The Games will showcase cutting-edge technology, including driverless buses, robot dogs, and facial recognition.
As the first cashless Games, Hangzhou will operate as a cashless city.
Organisers are also emphasizing their commitment to the environment, implementing a low-carbon policy that will power venues with “green” electricity.