For the second time in three years, China is about to stage a spectacle of Olympic proportions.
The Nov. 12-27 Asian Games will feature about 11,700 athletes competing in 42 sports, ranging from teensy Chinese gymnasts cultivated by the country's state-funded sports system to boxers from Palestine who train by punching old tires. War-torn Afghanistan and the tiny island nation of Maldives are sending cricket teams, while an air of mystery surrounds the delegation from the reclusive North Korea.
"I can say responsibly, we are ready. Guangzhou is ready," Mayor Wan Qingliang recently said. "We will have the best organization and management, the best venues and facilities, the best city environment, the best service and the most welcoming atmosphere for our guests from all over."
For host China, it's yet another opportunity to showcase the country's rising global influence, following on the successes of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo that wrapped up last month. Beijing's experience running those well-funded, well-organized mega events stands in stark contrast to the recent Commonwealth Games in neighboring India which was so plagued with problems it almost didn't get off the ground.
The Guangzhou Asian Games are a "grand event ... a platform to show the tremendous achievements of China's economic and social development," is the official line from the organizing committee. Athletes and visitors to Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, will find a city of urban bustle that has been freshly scrubbed and spruced up for the event. Authorities repaved roadways, built new subway lines and installed lush flower beds along sidewalks and overpasses.
The government even painted and put imitation Spanish-style roofs on dreary apartment blocks, particularly those lining the highway connecting the airport to the city. Locals called the project "putting on new clothes and a hat," though some grumbled it was a waste of money and wasn't really very attractive. In a move reminiscent of rules for the Beijing Olympics, half of the private cars in the city of 10 million have already been ordered off roads to improve traffic conditions and air quality. Residents will be able to take public transportation for free, though security checks have led to massive backups at subway stations. Athletes and officials will be staying at a sparkling new "Asian Games Town" about 40 minutes outside the city center. The sprawling complex is also home to the dramatic and flowing Asian Games Town Gymnasium, which will host gymnastics events.
Details of the opening and closing ceremonies are secret, though the games torch will be lit at 9:42 p.m. on Nov. 12 in a new half-stadium built on an island in the Pearl River. Guests will arrive by boat, while security will be provided in part by anti-explosives vehicles that can operate underwater and frogmen trained to dive 100 feet (30 meters) without any equipment. News photographs have shown Chinese security forces training for various emergencies and they are sure to be on high alert next Monday when China and Japan meet in a group stage football match. The countries are historic rivals and tensions have been running high after a collision in September between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese government patrol vessels near a chain of disputed islands. Anti-Japan protests flared in cities across China, and though they seem to have abated in recent days, a perceived slight on the football field could set off rioting or other violence among the passionate fans.
On the sidelines, China's anti-doping authorities plan to conduct more than 1,500 urine tests and more than 200 blood tests before and during the games, the China Daily reported.
It quoted agency spokesman Zhao Jian saying it was a record for the Asian games. All samples will be tested in the Beijing lab that was used for the 2008 Olympics.
Officials have already ordered testing on all Chinese athletes available for the national team.
"All the athletes have to be proved clean before moving into the Asian Games Village," Zhao was quoted as saying. "Athletes and coaches who have dirty records in doping tests will have no chance to represent China in Guangzhou."
In competition, cricket, dance, dragon boat, roller sports and chess will be making their Asian Games debut in Guangzhou. Other non-Olympic sports include bowling, billiards and squash, as well as regional sports such as kabaddi (a rough game popular in rural parts of South Asia) and sepak takraw (like volleyball with a no-hands rule.)
China topped the medals table at the Beijing Olympics and is again expected to lead the way at the Asian Games, which it is using to finetune its athletes for the London 2012 Olympics as much as to showcase its economic strength in the region.