The sound of adoration can be a profound one. At the Istora stadium in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, as the crowd hollered and hooted, it was the sort of familiar frenzy you find in sport, and yet its subtext was beautiful. In a nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, they were cheering a man making the sign of the cross. Jonatan Christie had won the badminton singles gold for Indonesia at the Asian Games and they were telling him he was theirs.
Two journalists from India told me this story the next day and they recounted it with a smile. The word was spreading. The symbolism had not gone unnoticed. In this briefly united Asia, in shorts and skirts, we sometimes find the better parts of ourselves.
At the Games’ opening ceremony, Iran’s flag was carried by a woman. An Indian woman, Swapna Barman, whose father once pulled rickshaws, won gold in the heptathlon, the seven-event track-and-field test. The two Koreas which played as one team in the women’s basketball were supported by an indistinguishable crowd of North and South. Hope was their common compass.
No great emancipation or world peace was at hand, but the reaffirmation of a simple message: This is sport, where your gender and your father’s profession do not matter, just your talent.
One might argue that similar stories happen elsewhere, but what a major gathering ensures is that these stories are amplified and transmitted. Tales of Indonesian valour surely travel to Bhutan, a Singaporean swimmer’s feats journey to Pakistan, and the heroism of village girls is read about by urban folk.
At the Olympics, on a much larger canvas, Barman’s story might get diluted or Christie’s story lost, but not here. And so if you ask why do the Asian Games matter, then it is because Asian stories get heard. As Haider Farman, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) Asian Games director, said, “Do you know what is the media (here)? About 11,000.” Think of it as a multi-language megaphone.
Humans enjoy sporting events because they are a way to measure our competitive nature. We are separated geographically into various tribes and born to cultures that worship diverse sports. And so, at the Micronesian Games, you can win spearfishing gold, and at the Arctic Winter Games, a dog-mushing trophy.
There is a Pan-American Games, a Bolivarian Games and the Games of the Small States of Europe, but among all of them, the Olympics is most prestigious. As a stage, it is a sort of athletic La Scala, but it cannot be the only platform for showing off skill because there are millions of aspiring athletes, and only 10,500 got to Rio in 2016.
And so Asia, the largest continent, has its own Games which offer a four-yearly spotlight to its athletes and a place to validate their skills. For some athletes, this is their Olympics, their ultimate medal, their measuring stick.
As Farman says: “How many Asian athletes have the chance to compete at the Olympics? We are the biggest continent in the world … the youth are over 60% in this continent. So out of all of them, how many persons will qualify for the Olympic Games? How many athletes will have the chance to compete in a high-level, multi-sport event? Where are they going to have the showcase?”
The Games are many things to many people at many times. It is a platform for those who use it as a step to the Olympics and those who play a sport that may never be included in an Olympics. Sepak takraw, for instance, needs these Games, and so does kabaddi, because for indigenous sports, this is the theatre of their survival. As Farman notes: “We select one sport representing the region. It is very important for us. It gives an identity to the Asian Games. If you want to copy Olympic sport only … what is the added value?”
The Games matter because any peaceful collection of diverse people, involved in a grand striving, is valuable in an era of insularity and inwardness. Perhaps nowhere else in life, for so many days, do so many humans gather with only excellence in mind.
For roughly two weeks, thousands of talented young folk, all residing in a small village of versatility, get a close glimpse of one another beyond Google and YouTube. They identify flags, discover accents, hear anthems and figure out that Indonesia has more types of sambal than they think.
They make friends, for they respect one another’s sweat, and they shake hands even as they tear at one another’s dreams. When Indian wushu exponent Surya Bhanu Pratap Singh was injured, his Iranian rival Erfan Ahangarian picked him up and carried him from the ring. Amid the nationalism of anthems, there is also a persistent hymn to togetherness.
These Games matter as a human experience and stand as a tribute to persistence. An idea that began in 1951 in Delhi, India, has traversed through eight other countries over 67 years. Competing nations have sulked and warred, but mostly, we have played on amid the politics.
In 1951, there were 489 contestants. Now, says Farman, who seems to swell with pride as he speaks, there are “17,500 athletes and officials”. We are, he is categorical, “bigger than the Olympic Games in number of participants and number of sports. The biggest multi-sports event worldwide”.
Of course, like the Olympics, these Games should not keep bloating till it becomes an unaffordable festival.
The size of a Games is not immaterial but quality is essential, and Asia is better at Games and sports. For a continent constantly told it’s athletically too small, we have grown. In 1978, 19 different nations won medals and, 40 years later, the athletic loot has been shared among 37 nations and territories. At least five world records were set in Jakarta, and Olympic champions lounged in various arenas.
But even as talent widens and standards deepen, the crowds are not coming. In Incheon 2014, they were unimpressive; here – with some noisy exceptions – they were passable.
But this is not only the challenge of the Games but of sport itself. Golf is fiddling with formats to attract new fans. Test cricket in many nations prays for fans, and so do these Games. In a long-distance love-affair world, football in distant England seduces in a way swimming next door cannot.
The young, anyway, live on their phones and don’t need a fixed seat at a single stadium. “Live” sport is a singular experience, for it feels like a current connecting a crowd, and yet fans grumble about travel to a stadium, parking and the suffocation of security.
It’s not always easy to host a Games during the summer holidays, for Asia can be too hot for excellence in that season. Farman knows this is a sticky obstacle, and when asked if this bothers him, replies: “Definitely. I need to see more crowds. It’s very important for us.”
Challenges remain, but for all the inherent foulness of modern sport, these Games have not lost their capacity for wonder. Asian kids must see the diminutive gymnast, the sturdy weightlifter, the rangy volleyballer and think: Oh, I look like her. Hey, he comes from my town. There is connection here and proximity, and the start of dreams.
These Games matter because in a time of hazy cities, rising obesity and the burying of fields in concrete, they promote health, competition and the need to just run. To play, surely, is a human right.
These Games matter also because there are few images as hopeful as that of the struggling athlete. She is real, she is not a movie character, and she comes in peace. She loses and she leaves, and then she returns to sweat on the track. Because there in the distance she can see it.
The next Games. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network