Under the slogan “From heart to heart towards the future”, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday opened the largest edition of the Asian Games in the city of Hangzhou, apart from fireworks that the organizers announced would not be used in adherence to the green philosophy.
After being postponed for a year due to the strict regime imposed by China to eliminate the Covid-19 virus, the Games, which were first held in New Delhi in 1951, were launched, with participation exceeding that of the Olympic Games, as 12,417 male and female athletes, representing 45 countries, competed over a period of two weeks.
Xi, who received a crowd of spectators waving small Chinese flags, opened the third session in China after Beijing 1990 and Guangzhou 2010, in one of the most prosperous cities in the country, in front of invited guests.
Security measures were tightened in the area surrounding the stadium in the hours before the ceremony, with roads closed and police stationed on street corners.
Spectators underwent extensive security checks before entering and staff confiscated food and umbrellas, as light rain stopped.
The opening ceremony embodied China’s cultural heritage and romantic images by combining its ancient civilization with modern technology. The ceremony also highlighted the ruins of the ancient city of Lianguo as a sacred site, a prominent landmark in China, and a 5,000-year-old civilization.
Featuring innovative new technologies, the theme of the ceremony centered around water, Hangzhou’s ancient history and landscape, while also referencing the city’s reputation as the unofficial home of China’s technology industry.
“At that time, I never imagined that I would be present at the opening of the Asian Games,” Giozi, 31, told AFP how he had just graduated from university when his city won the honor of hosting.
No fireworks were used at the opening ceremony at the Big Lotus Olympic Stadium, whose architectural shape is inspired by the rising waves of the Qiantang River, in line with the Games’ environmentally friendly approach.
50,000 spectators were treated to a “visual feast” with spectacular electronic fireworks through 3D animation and augmented reality technology.
Wong Rig, 32, says the city has waited eight years for the opening. “Hangju has changed a lot because of the Games, and people here live a happy life.”
He adds, “My father and mother are also waiting for the opening at home. Watching on TV will not be less important due to the technologies used.”
Jungwoo Lee, a sports policy expert at the University of Edinburgh, told AFP that the Games “are likely to be an exercise in China’s soft power after the Pandemic in a packed stadium attended by political and business leaders in Asia.”
China’s status as a sports destination took a severe hit during the first three years of the pandemic, when snap lockdowns and travel rules led to the cancellation of almost all international events.
The host country is the most likely candidate to top the medal table, as it includes a huge delegation of about 800 athletes, while Japan and South Korea compete for runner-up.
North Korea sent about 200 athletes, ending nearly three years of isolation from the global sports scene.
Participants, including world and Olympic champions, will compete for medals in 40 sports, from athletics, swimming and football to e-sports and bridge.
Nine sports, including boxing, break dancing and tennis, will qualify for the Olympic Games scheduled for Paris next year.
Host China has topped the medal table at every Asian Games since 1982, and is expected to do so again by the time the curtain comes down on October 8.
China seems likely to dominate the swimming competitions through Chen Haiyang, who declared himself the new and undisputed king of the breaststroke races at the World Championships.
The 24-year-old swimmer won all three races (50m, 100m and 200m) and set a new world record in the 200m.
In athletics, one of the most closely followed sports, Indian Olympic and world champion Neeraj Chopra will defend his javelin title at the Asian Games, while veteran Qatari star Moataz Barshim is searching for a third gold in the high jump after 2010 and 2014.
The eSports competition, seen as a step towards Olympic inclusion one day, will be official for the first time at the Asian Games, having been a demonstration sport five years ago.
The Games will be held at 54 sports venues, including 14 newly built, most of them in Hangzhou but also extending to cities as far away as Wonju, 300 kilometers to the south.
The city of Hangzhou, with a population of 12 million people and an hour away by high-speed train from Shanghai, is famous for its ancient temples, gardens and beloved West Lake. For the success of the course, 37,600 male and female volunteers from 46 universities and institutions were selected, selected from about 324,000 applications.
It is also the unofficial home of China’s tech industry, notably the birthplace of Jack Ma’s Alibaba.
The games will showcase some of the latest technologies coming from the city, including driverless buses and robotic dogs.