At Asian Games, rivalries bleed into matches

Israel is no longer around to spoil the party, but plenty of hostility remains as athletes from Afghanistan to Yemen face off in South Korea

Saeed Raza Keikha of Iran competes in the artistic gymnastics men's pommel horse individual qualifications and team final at Namdong Gymnasium during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon on September 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Prakash SINGH)
Saeed Raza Keikha of Iran competes in the artistic gymnastics men's pommel horse individual qualifications and team final at Namdong Gymnasium during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon on September 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Prakash SINGH)

INCHEON, South Korea — On the one hand, you have China and India, which account for about a quarter of the world’s population. On the other, the Maldives, population 345,000. There’s Bhutan, which has been described as the happiest place on Earth, and Syria, which certainly isn’t. And for good measure, why not throw in some of the most repressive regimes on the planet — North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?

Welcome to the Asian Games, where, as the organizers put it, “Diversity Shines.”

For the third time in the games’ 63-year history, host South Korea has managed to bring together all 45 member states of the Olympic Council of Asia for a spectacle of sports that over the next two weeks will put the spotlight on more than 10,000 athletes vying for 439 gold medals. But along with being the premier sporting event for the world’s most populous region — 4.5 billion at last count — the games offer a snapshot of Asia itself.

And it’s, well, complicated.

Asia is rife with rivalries. Most of them aren’t friendly.

For starters, this year’s host country is technically still at war with its neighbors north of the Demilitarized Zone, which has made for more than a few awkward moments with the North Korean team in its midst. On Friday, not long before the North Koreans marched into the games’ main stadium to warm applause from the South Korean crowd of about 60,000, a South Korean Navy ship fired warning shots at a North Korean patrol boat that had apparently violated their sea border.

Ah yes, those Asian borders.

One set of islands alone — the Spratleys in the South China Sea — is claimed by a half dozen Asian Games’ participants.

China has territory disputes with just about all of its neighbors. Japan has issues not only with China, but also with the host, with Russia (not a competitor here) and with Taiwan — which, of course, is officially known at the games as Chinese Taipei since its mere existence as a country isn’t recognized by Beijing.

Longstanding land claims have led the Indians and the Pakistanis into four shooting wars, mainly over Kashmir, and there’s no lack of bad blood between the Indians and the Chinese, who are also at odds over Kashmir and the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Even at friendly off-the-field events, it seems, time hasn’t done much to heal old animosities.

Just before the games kicked off, officials were looking into complaints the Japanese hockey team handed out rising-sun flag pins to local schoolgirls. The emblem, closely associated with Japan’s militaristic past, when it controlled all of Korea as a colony until 1945, is seen as highly offensive here. Organizers lodged a formal protest.

For the purposes of the games, most of the countries in the Middle East are considered a part of Asia.

So if you want to cheer on your favorite Palestinians, Incheon is the place to be. But if you support Israel, you’re out of luck. The Israelis competed in the Asian Games from 1954 to 1974, but they were banned by the OCA in 1981.

Despite its civil war, and now the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Damascus has sent a delegation and so has Baghdad. Yemen and Iran are here, too.

Conspicuously absent, however, are any women on the 200-member Saudi Arabia team.

Human rights groups, not surprisingly, are crying foul.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement earlier this week that failing to send women to the Asian Games “casts doubts on Saudi Arabia’s commitment to end discrimination and allow Saudi women to participate in future competitions.”

To make matters worse, two Palestinian football players and an Iranian team official have had their identification documents revoked and were expelled from the games for groping local volunteers, which caused a loud outcry in the Korean media.

OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah said there is zero tolerance for such incidents, but also suggested cultural differences might have been at play.

“Of course, that kind of accident can’t be allowed to happen,” he said. “But to me also we have to understand what was the real problem … Asia — east, west, central and south — there are a lot of different cultures in this continent.”

Despite its rather humble beginnings in New Delhi in 1951, when there were only nine events and 11 countries involved, staging this year’s games is believed to have cost South Korea a whopping $2 billion.

That’s another thing that is hard to miss at the games — though Asia is now the most economically dynamic region in the world, with the likes of China, Japan and South Korea leading the way, it is also a region marred by severe poverty.

For the major players, the Asian Games is a solid path toward bigger things. Former Asian Games host Japan will be hosting the Olympics in 2020, and South Korea will be hosting the 2018 Winter Games. Beijing started off with the Asian Games in 1990 and hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008. Hoping to join the elite pack, Kazakhstan, with 423 athletes here, is seeking to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in its largest city, Almaty, the site of the 2011 Winter Asian Games.

Most countries here can’t afford that luxury.

Saying it simply couldn’t come up with the money, Vietnam had to formally announce this week that it was giving up its claim on hosting the next Asian Games. Indonesia will step in instead.

Meanwhile, for countries such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Laos or Cambodia, just providing the facilities and training needed to develop top-class athletes is no small feat.

While host South Korea has 831 athletes at Incheon and China 899, East Timor has 31. For Cambodia, it’s only 21.

Worth keeping in mind when the final medal counts come out.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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