T was 16 days of sheer excitement, with China locking horns with the rest of the continent and proving its dominance for the sixth time on the trot, in the 14th Asian Games, held in Busan, South Korea. In a fine campaign, India looked all set to finish two rungs above the ninth spot it managed in Bangkok four years ago. In the end, the Games witnessed India's image being sullied for a second time in four months in an international arena.
The highlight from the Indian viewpoint was a string of superb performances by the athletes led by track queen K.M. Beenamol after India had won golds in snooker (Yasin Merchant and Rafath Habib), golf (Shiv Kapur) and kabaddi. In Kabaddi it was the fourth consecutive title in as many Games.
The 1,500m gold that Sunita Rani won by finishing streets ahead of her rivals and the bronze the 22-year-old picked up in the 5,000m would have added to the gems in the Indian collection. But they lost their glitter when she tested positive for the banned substance, nandrolone, in the mandatory anti-doping test.
Only four months ago, at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, India's image was tainted when weightlifting gold-medallists Satheesha Rai and Krishnan Madasamy failed to clear the drug test. With the organisers officially stripping Sunita Rani of the two medals, India was placed in the eighth spot, overall, with a tally of 10 gold, 12 silver and 13 bronze medals.
The disturbing trend indicated by the failure of Rai, Madasamy and Sunita Rani to clear anti-doping tests has only helped derail India's claims to being a growing power in the field of sports. It is also a subject that requires the immediate attention of not only India's national federations but also the Union Sports Ministry.
The Sunita Rani episode was a big setback even to the organisers of the Busan Games and their attempt to project the event as the cleanest ever, in terms of doping. The only other instance that forced them to act was when a Lebanese bodybuilder refused to take the test. He was immediately stripped of his 96 kg weight category bronze medal.
Rather than discuss the girl whose ecstasy was short-lived, India would do well to turn its attention to the gold-medal-winning performances of long jumper Anju Bobby George, discus thrower Neelam Jaswant Singh and shot-putter Bahadur Singh Sagoo, and look at the hockey team's failure to retain the gold it won in Bangkok.
It would be a crime if one were to overlook, in the same vein, the tremendous show of strength put up by the Chinese, who expectedly topped the medal tally with a haul of 150 golds, 84 silvers and 74 bronzes, leaving second-placed South Korea (96 golds, 80 silvers and 84 bronzes) far behind. The Chinese were on a mission to succeed, and though they arrived in Busan with a comparatively young side, there was no stopping the Asian behemoth once it got going.
The superiority of the Chinese was evident at the Sajik swimming pool, where they celebrated the birth of a new star in teenager Wu Peng and the five-gold haul by Xu Yanwei, the most by any athlete at the Games. However, it was Japanese swimmer Kosuke Kitajima who stole the show with the lone world record (in the 200m breaststroke) of the meet. No matter that the Chinese had a better tally than Japan and that they made a clean sweep of all the eight diving titles at stake.
The Chinese domination was clear also in weightlifting and in shooting, where the world's most populous country had a yield of 36 golds from a possible 57. In weightlifting, Chinese women outshone their male counterparts. Indeed, Sun Ruiping and Tang Gonhong were the toast of the Chinese contingent as they came up with world-record-breaking efforts in the 75kg and +75 kg categories respectively. Records also fell like nine pins in shooting, where China's cause was upheld by Liu Guohui, Liu Yandong, Wang Yifu, Xu Xuan, Ren Jie and Shi Hong Yan, to name only a few.
The Chinese reasserted their supremacy in athletics, cycling, judo, gymnastics and rowing, though the failure of their table tennis squad to repeat a clean sweep proved an embarrassment. Particularly shocking was the loss of the world No. 1 pair of Wang Nan and Guo Yan in the semi-finals of the women's doubles. The Chinese were also stunned by the defeat of their men's basketball team at the hands of the South Koreans in the final.
Yet, the Chinese concluded their campaign on top of the heap. But at a post-Games press conference the team management emphasised the need for improvement. For China, these Games were just a testing ground to finetune its preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where it would like at least to double the tally of 28 golds it won at Sydney
South Korea, as the host country in 1986, had given the Chinese a scare, finishing with just one gold less than the champion. But in Busan, the hosts never really had a chance to catch up; they finished second with a total haul of 260 medals. The South Korean collection, unlike the Chinese, came from a wide spread of disciplines, though its dominance was evident in such disciplines as taekwondo, wrestling, fencing and soft-tennis. What let down South Korean supporters was the failure of the football team to make it to the final, losing to Iran on penalties in the semi-final. This was one gold Koreans wanted to win all along, especially in the light of the superb performance of their team in the World Cup.
The success of South Korea in denting the Indonesian supremacy in badminton and the golds its sailors won were marked by controversy, with their rivals raising doubts about the impartiality of the local judges. In the men's badminton team final, play was held up for almost two hours before the Indonesians agreed to continue. Things were no different in sailing and wind surfing, wherein team managements from China, India, Japan and Thailand made no attempt to disguise their disappointment over the poor standard of officiating.
In the overall medals tally Japan was at the third spot with 44 golds, 73 silvers and 72 bronzes. But more than the success it charted out, especially in swimming, women's golf, and to a certain extent in judo, what haunted the Japanese contingent was the poor show of the athletics squad, which failed badly in front of the assault unleashed by China, India and Saudi Arabia. The other countries to touch the double-digit mark in terms of gold medals were Kazakhstan (20), Uzbekistan (15), Thailand (14) and Chinese Taipei (10) which also finished in that order behind the top three.
The Games were also invested with political import, as the participation of North Korea in an international sporting contest to be held in South Korea for the first time attracted attention from many quarters. It was a defining moment as the teams from the two countries, separated by war since the early 1950s, walked as one contingent at the opening ceremony on September 29 and at the closing ceremony on October 14, under a white-and-blue flag signifying the Korean peninsula.
While this suggested the possibility of a reunification of the two countries at a later date, the Busan Games also did emerge as the first ever Games to have a full-house attendance of all the 44 nations affiliated to the Olympic Council of Asia. The presence of 9,919 athletes and officials also marked the largest ever Asian Games held since the idea of bringing together the cream of the youth in the continent on a common platform and engaging them in a sporting contest crystallised in New Delhi in 1951.
But then, the Games on the whole did suffer from a lack of patronage from the local public, which, it seemed, was still to recover from the hangover of the World Cup that South Korea co-hosted with Japan in May-June. As such, the vacant stands were often an eye-sore, but it did not deter the athletes from performing at their best. Overall, it was a great show marked by the spirit of friendship and camaraderie, uniting in the process 3.7 billion people of the continent as one single community beyond the realm of race, religion and language.