With its economy in crisis, a decaying sports infrastructure and an uninspiring athletics record, it is little wonder many Vietnamese fear Hanoi is ill-prepared to host the 2019 Asian Games.
There was scant public jubilation when the communist country’s capital was chosen to host the region’s largest sporting event, making it the first Southeast Asian nation for 20 years to hold the showpiece competition.
Instead fears over whether Vietnam can pull off the event bounce around the city’s coffee shops and beer gardens.
“A hope is born, but concerns spread through society. You cannot imagine [a host] facing more difficulties,” said Do Minh Tuan, a 52-year-old Hanoi-based academic.
The government has set an initial budget of US$150 million to pay for the Games, which will be held in November 2019.
The money will come out of a US$30 billion pot to develop Hanoi over the next decade and bring much-needed transport, including a new sky train, roads and bridges to ease congestion in the city, which is known for its seething mass of motorcycles.
However, hosting the 18th Asian Games within budget will take some doing, said sports journalist Nguyen Nguyen, who said it will have to be one of the most “super economical” events ever held.
The Vietnamese Olympic Committee had initially proposed a budget of about US$300 million, he said, but the government slashed the sum as a result of the country’s dire economic predicament. It is experiencing falling growth as the effects of corruption and inefficiencies in the state-run sector ripple out into the wider economy, and a lingering banking crisis threatens some of the country’s key financial institutions.
The real cost of the Games, scheduled to run for 16 days, is likely to be much higher, but sports authorities have declined to provide detailed projections.
“It will be very regrettable if Vietnam does not rise to this occasion,” said Hoang Vinh Giang, the secretary-general of the Vietnamese Olympic Committee.
Hanoi won the right to host the Games on Nov. 8, beating Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, after Dubai pulled out just before the vote.
Vietnam expects about 10,000 athletes and coaches from 45 nations and territories in Asia to flock to Vietnam for the Games, which are usually a major source of pride for the host nation.
The Games feature events including athletics, boxing, gymnastics and swimming, alongside lesser-known sports including the martial art of wushu and the kick-volleyball game of sepak takraw.
China’s Guangzhou confirmed its status as a major Asian hub by hosting the 2010 edition, while South Korea’s Incheon is the venue for the 2014 competition, but Vietnam does not have the same sporting infrastructure in place, nor the resources of China and South Korea.
Compounding the gloom is the fact that Vietnam is a sporting minnow, despite its almost 90 million population, in a region scored by fierce local rivalries.
Over the past 20 years, the authoritarian regime has invested in sport to the limit of its means, but experts say there is not a single discipline at which the country truly excels.
“Training our athletes and coaches, as well as logistics, are the biggest problems,” said Giang, who added that the “political stability” of the country — a one-party state — was a huge asset for planning the event.
The poor quality of the host’s athletes and coaching network is heightened by the degraded state of the sporting infrastructure they must use — national stadiums are poorly maintained, while public swimming pools are unhygienic and overcrowded.
Vietnam has a number of stadiums left from its hosting of the 2003 Southeast Asian Games, which is a minnow compared with the Asian Games, but they have not been kept up to international standards.
The government plans to use about 500 hectares on the outskirts of Hanoi to build a so-called “Center for the Asian Games” and an athletes’ village, but across the city the same refrain is common among sports fans and experts — with the country in major economic difficulties, organizing a regional sporting event amounts to over-reaching.
Even Nguyen Hong Minh, a retired top sporting official, said the Asian Games would be an “enormous challenge” for Vietnam, especially as its economy is currently in its worst state for decades.
“Between now and 2019 there is an awful lot to do,” he said.