China turns to youth for Asian Games
GUANGZHOU, China- Kabbadi is the perfect sport, Indian coach Balwan Singh says. Requiring no special equipment, not even a ball, kabbadi is essentially a game of tag that "strengthens the body, heart, lungs and kidneys," Singh says.
"If the youth of China play this game, they can be healthy and happy," says Singh of the exotic sport derived from centuries-old Indian military training.
Here at the recently concluded Asian Games, it is one of the few sports China did not medal in because it is the only sport in which China did not compete.
Asia experts say sweeping medals in sporting events is part of Beijing's grand plan.
Dominating the games demonstrates to the Chinese the superiority of their system, analysts say. China's lavish preparations and hospitality show fellow Asian nations that it is a friendly power whose leadership in the region should be embraced, not feared, they say.
"Hosting a successful international games helps the central government's legitimacy, as it's good for cohesion at home, unites people across the land and inspires patriotism," says analyst Ni Jianping at the independent Shanghai Institute of American Studies.
The Asian Games held its 16th annual competition last month in the south China city of Guangzhou. In the colorful dragon boat competition, the youngest gold medal winner was China's Xia Shiyu, 13, chosen for her light weight, who beat the drum for her 20 furiously paddling teammates.
Thailand swept the board in sepak takraw, the kick volleyball game played on beaches across Southeast Asia. China dominated dancesport, from foxtrot to samba, while the skate-mad South Koreans and Taiwanese battled in roller sports.
The games featured 28 Olympic sports and 14 games, some of which are almost unheard of outside Asia, home to 4 billion of the world's nearly 6.9 billion people. It is the second-largest sports event in the world outside the Summer Olympics.
The cost to China to put on the games was enormous at $18 billion and follows the huge amount of money China poured into the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and the World Expo in Shanghai this year. China gave last month's Asian Games the slogan "Thrilling Games, Harmonious Asia," and sees them as a way of showcasing Chinese "soft power" and calming regional fears, analyst Ni says.
"There is still some sense of a 'China threat' " after years of rapid Chinese economic growth, he says.
The other key audience was domestic in a nation whose ruling Communist Party, like its Soviet counterpart of old, has long prized sporting prowess as a symbol of greatness.
"Young Chinese athletes should also show our nation's culture, its progress, its democracy and freedom," said Duan Shijie, Chinese delegation chief.
Some observers might question China's democracy and freedom - an empty chair represented jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last month. But few can doubt Beijing's commitment to competitive sports.
China broke its own Asian Games record by amassing 199 golds, as many as the next six countries combined. That's not a surprise given the money and resources China has recently been pouring into its athletics, says Jeff Ruffolo, a Californian who was executive adviser to the Guangzhou organizing committee.
"America is the only athletic force in the world that can keep pace with where China is going," Ruffolo says.
Ruffolo says China is looking ahead to the Olympics, targeting events in which it can sweep the bronze, silver and gold medals.
" 'Watch out London!' that's the Chinese message," Ruffolo says, referring to the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
China's dominance has rekindled a debate here over whether the country's elite sports machine, training kids as young as 5 in specialist schools, comes at the cost of sport - and health - for the masses.
Sporting milestones have multiplied in the two decades since China first hosted the Asian Games, but public health has deteriorated, says Yang Ming, a journalist at China's state-run news agency Xinhua. In November, Yang suggested China should send amateurs to future Asian Games to level the playing field for other nations.
The critique drew short shrift from authorities, so don't expect change anytime soon, says Zhao Yu, a sports historian whose book Superpower Dream details China's Olympic rise.
"Many officials still believe that lots of gold medals show we are a strong country, and so they only stress competitive sports. To me, a strong country means nationwide fitness," says Zhao, who hopes the introduction of professional leagues, a flop in soccer but more successful in basketball, heralds a more diversified approach to sport in China.
To withstand the Chinese challenge, some teams went to unusual lengths before the Asian Games.
South Korea's victorious female archers played with snakes to enhance bravery, team coach Cho Eun Sin confirmed to the China Daily newspaper, which said China's silver medalists had tested their courage by touching a tiger's rear.
Winners here may face less glamorous duties before pursuing lucrative product endorsement deals as is customary among victorious athletes in Western nations.
"The first thing she has to do is clean the cow shed," mother of Indian runner Kavita Raut, a silver medalist, told India's Daily News & Analysis. "I am very proud of her."
The joy of competition was ubiquitous despite China's domination.
Non-medalist Afghan golfer Ali Ahmad Fazel had never played before on grass, just the sands of Kabul's only golf course. He finished in last place at 179 over par. The mere presence of Afghan athletes, whose training in Afghanistan was often disrupted by explosions, was worth celebrating, said Afghan Olympic Committee chief M. Zahir Aghabr, whose cricketers beat the odds to win silver.
"No matter if they win or not, they are winners and ambassadors of peace," he told the China Daily.