First it was a couple of low-profile doping scandals, followed by athletes from Nepal going AWOL. Then the big story of the Asian Games became a protest by Qatar women against international rules banning them from wearing their Muslim hijab on the basketball court, followed in short order by allegations of match-fixing in the soccer qualifiers.
What could possibly happen next?
Try the death of a referee.
When you bring more than 10,000 athletes from 45 countries together for a couple of weeks of intense competition, there are bound to be some hiccups and controversies — and the Asian Games has proved to be no exception.
One week into the Games, Incheon organizers were put on the hot seat yesterday as reporters grilled them about everything from the doping and missing-athlete incidents — which are common fodder at major sporting competitions — to more sensitive topics like the failure of the once-every-four-years event to create more of a buzz.
Their answer: Despite reports to the contrary, the Incheon Games have not gone off the rails.
Sixteen world records have been set; ticket sales have brought in 23 billion won (US$22 million) — despite the rows of empty seats that have been seen at virtually every venue — and, the organizers say, the problems on the playing fields, including the hijab protest, are not really their responsibility.
“I truly regretted that,” organizing committee secretary-general Kwon Kyung-sang said of the Qatar protest. “Our decision to ban the players from the game was regrettable from our point of view, but inevitable because we must follow the international and Asian Games’ federations’ policies.”
Even so, the 16-day Games have already had their share of bumps:
‧ Three Nepal team members have gone missing from the athletes’ village and are being tracked by South Korean police. Kwon said the AWOL athletes did not take their passports with them when they disappeared and are likely to return at some point.
‧ Kwon said he was aware of allegations of match-fixing in the early soccer rounds, but said that would be looked into by the relevant governing bodies of the sport.
‧ Organizers said the 59-year-old athletics referee died of apparent heart failure yesterday, and were awaiting more information.
‧ They also confirmed the two doping cases, one involving a Cambodia athlete and the other a Tajikistan soccer player. Kwon added that the Olympic Council of Asia is in charge of handling all doping cases at the Games.
Kwon said that completing the Asian Games successfully is important to South Korea, which is also host for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. He said observers for the 2018 Olympics are in Incheon to glean lessons for the future.
One aspect of the Incheon Games that the Winter Olympics will not likely want to emulate is its seeming failure so far to get many South Koreans to care.
Organizers say the empty stands are due in part to the way tickets were sold online, and the unavoidable lack of interest in preliminaries or minor sports.
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