COVID-delayed Asian Games roll out the relay carpet
By Li Wenhan  ·  2023-09-18  ·   Source: NO.38 SEPTEMBER 21, 2023
People line the streets of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, to catch a glimpse of the torch relay of the 19th Asian Games on September 8 (XINHUA)

Old habits die hard. With a passion for supersize sports events and the 19th Asian Games just around the corner, photographer Lu Baoquan does what he's been doing for decades—grab his camera and head out to capture the excitement humming through the streets.

"In September 1990, during the torch relay for the Beijing Asian Games, the first stop was Wulin Square in Hangzhou (capital city of Zhejiang Province, east China). I want to go there again," Lu, who still has vivid memories of that year's spectacle, said.

Lu was 46 at the time and, to his surprise, when he arrived at the square, it was so crowded that he couldn't even get through, let alone take pictures. Remembering those days, Lu still gets excited. "It was magnificent. I could feel the enthusiasm of the people of Hangzhou for China to host the Asian Games; everyone came to see the torch relay," Lu told Beijing Review. Today, 33 years later, the people of Hangzhou can enjoy the Asian Games on their own doorstep.

The Asian Games, also known as Asiad, are regional multi-sport games organized by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) for athletes from member countries and regions. The inaugural games took place in 1951 in New Delhi, India; from 1954 onward, they were held once every four years. China's Beijing and Guangzhou hosted the event in 1990 and 2010, respectively.

The 19th Asian Games and the Fourth Asian Para Games, with the former scheduled to run from September 23 to October 8 and the latter on October 22-28, are entering the final stretch to their opening in Hangzhou. Five other cities in Zhejiang will co-host the events.

On September 8, the torch relay for the Asian Games kicked off near the iconic West Lake scenic area in Hangzhou.

Passing the torch

As thousands of people lined the streets of host city Hangzhou, Luo Xuejuan, winner of the women's 100-meter breaststroke at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, was the first of 106 torch-bearers to take part on the first day. A total of 2,022 participated in the 13-day relay, which moved through 11 cities before returning to Hangzhou for the final leg on September 20.

Torchbearers Luo Xuejuan (right) and Zhang Yong pass the flame during the torch relay of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou on September 8 (XINHUA)

"I was very excited," a Hangzhou local recalled of her feelings when the city won the bid to host the 19th Asian Games eight years ago. "We just wanted to invite guests from all over the world to come and see [our city], and today it finally comes true," she told Global Times.

In line with the sports event's "green, smart, economical and ethical" philosophy, the torch relay also incorporated an online segment: the Digital Torchbearer, i.e., a digital platform where people can pass the torch by shaking their smartphone. Launched after the games' flame was officially lit on June 15, over 97 million people had participated in the online torch relays of September 13, according to China Daily.

And this digital torchbearer is covering huge distances given the next netizen to carry it may find themselves anywhere in the world. After passing the online torch, each torchbearer can download a picture of their coveted moment.

On September 23, the physical torch will light the fire that will signal the beginning of the COVID-delayed 2022 Asian Games.

Prep time

The Hangzhou Asian Games are set to be the largest ever, starring 12,500 athletes from 45 countries and regions competing in 40 sports, 61 disciplines and 481 events.

More than 900 Chinese athletes from a wide range of sports are making their final preparations as they seek to showcase their best form at home.

Chinese athletes have always excelled in the sport of table tennis and Team China, which won five gold medals at the 2018 Asiad in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, is looking at the upcoming Games as the last comprehensive competition before the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France.

"Our players may compete in different events at the Paris Olympic Games, so the Asian Games will be a good test for them to see how they have to adjust to different categories," Li Sun, head coach of the Chinese table tennis team, told Xinhua News Agency.

But beyond traditional sports, esports have finally been recognized as a medal event starting with the 19th Asiad in China. From September 23 on, seven games will be featured in official competitions, including League of Legends, Dota 2, Street Fighter V, Peace Elite Asian Games Version, Dream Three Kingdoms 2, Arena of Valor and FIFA Online 4.

The OCA said in an announcement the decision reflected "the rapid development and popularity of this new form of sports participation among the youth." And the popularity of esports in China has soared since that decision was announced.

Twenty-one-year-old Zhu Bocheng (in-game ID: Paraboy) is a player of Peace Elite, affiliated with the Shanghai-based NOVA Esports Club.

He is going all out to prepare for the Hangzhou Asian Games, with an intense daily training schedule of up to 14 hours a day. But even during breaks, he diligently reviews and reflects on his game.

"In real life, you may not be able to change much, but in the world of esports, you can turn the tide and create endless possibilities," Zhu told Beijing-based newsweekly Lifeweek.

His gaming style is characterized by an aggressive confidence, which poses a stark contrast to his personality marked by rationality and self-discipline. Audiences often label him as a genius, but he never believes he possesses exceptional talent, "because every professional esports player, initially, was chosen because of their talent."

Ready to roll

On August 30, the Hangzhou Asian Games Command Center, along with competition venue teams and independent training venue teams, conducted an all-inclusive drill focusing on arrival and departure services, Asian Games Village operations, media services, event security, competition organization and award ceremonies. As part of it, a full-fledged Women's Table Tennis Team Final test event took place at Hangzhou's Gongshu Canal Sports Park Gymnasium.

"The gymnasium will host the table tennis and breakdancing competitions. The venue's team has been fine-tuning every aspect to ensure that the venue's operations meet Asiad requirements," Wang Xiaochen, a staff member at the gymnasium, told Xinhua.

The success of the drill showed all venues are ready to roll for the supersize sports event's official opening on September 23.

The esports competitions will take place inside a new Hangzhou venue. Located in an ecological park about an hour's drive from the city center, this setting is China's first stadium dedicated to esports competitions and also echoes the Games' "green, smart, economical and ethical" ethos.

Famous Chinese esports player Hong Lian visited the venue in early June and described it as "a dream come true" for players. "The design of the stadium is very cool and the lighting adds a touch of glamour," he shared his excitement in a short video posted on Douyin, China's TikTok, after his visit. "I wish I could compete in this stadium."

A short walk from the esports venue, a large park converted from an old industrial factory will serve as the Games' largest theme park, where visitors will be able to watch all the competitions on eight digital displays. The park will also host a range of activities as the Asiad unfolds.

(Print Edition Title: The Final Countdown)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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