This is proving to be a strange Asian Games. Except for football whenever the National team plays, there is this outpouring of sporting nationalism.
In other events the response and following for the Games and the South Korean athletes has been lukewarm, if not entirely absent. Even the participation of their estranged North Korean athletes has failed to evoke any response apart from that at the Opening Ceremony. Ticket sales have hit rock bottom.
And despite what the Organising Committee claimed about the sales rising, people were actually being cajoled to attend the Opening Ceremony. Like in the World Cup when the citizens of co-hosts Korea and Japan took it upon themselves to form cheering squads for participating countries and it proved an innovative success, this time too there seems to be this concept of designer cheering squads at play.
It is common to see school students, complete in their uniforms and teachers in tow, line up to enter the stadium before the start of an event. Students of the Gran Middle School near Ganseo Hockey Stadium regularly make up the spectators and cheerleaders for the hockey competition.
One was surprised to see the support for Bangladesh in India's first football match in a tight section of an otherwise magnificent but empty Munsu Stadium in Masan. Looking closer, it was a bunch of Koreans that had been drafted in to root for Bangladesh. Later, an organised cheering bunch came in to scream for India too.
It is not the hangover from a wonderful World Cup that people believe has stopped the crowds from participating in Games, but the fact that for the first time, they have found a choice, and have chosen not to be a part of it.
This facet usually gets hidden in the wake of organisational efficiency, superb technological advances and security. But beneath this veneer of harmony, all is not well.
Ignoring the Asian Games is the Korean's way of embracing democracy, and living it to the fullest. A day before the Opening Ceremony, people in Kwangbok-dong, one of Busan’s busiest areas, awaited the arrival of the sacred torch. Instead, what turned up was a 300-strong demonstration of environmentalists and farmers.
The waiting public was irritated by intrusion that was certainly not listed in the programme. They ignored it and cheered the torch relay when the demonstrators dispersed.
Life now has not the time for such demonstrations. But way back prior to the 1986 Asian Games and 1998 Olympics, these demonstrations in the streets of Seoul were a regular feature --- a way of showing their dissent against repressive military-backed dictatorship then, and their struggle for democracy.
Sensing the Games as the best way for their propaganda, the dictatorship mobilised an entire manpower and resources of the people of a city in order to be part of a national mission. It seemed to work. People involved in the smooth running of the '86 Asiad and '88 Olympics, were actually convinced of being part of a national mission.
Once spreading like a popular movement all over the country, these demonstrations took backstage as the huge sporting events made their entry, and ensured that they were a huge success.
Now, with the return of democracy and rapid economical and technological progress, a decade and half later, the Korean may actually be sheepish of the past. An otherwise helpful volunteer was hesitant to part with her copy of the newspaper that carried the news of the demonstration preceding the torch relay. "Why do you want this, it is not good story of Korea," she pleaded unsuccessfully.
The establishment is still trying hard to make the Games look like a success, but outside in the stadiums, it is the common fan who went crazy during the recent World Cup, who is refusing to buy tickets and enter the stadiums.