Every day, thousands of visitors touch down at the Incheon International Airport — one of the world’s busiest — and immediately embark on a half-hour journey to Seoul.
For the last two weeks, though, the organisers have been striving to keep those people in the port city, having miserably failed to draw them from the capital. But as the Incheon Games drew to a close with an underwhelming closing ceremony on Saturday, one wondered if the organisers had taken their austerity drive a bit too far.
Incheon has given an impression of a city that is desperate to throw a lavish party but just does not have enough cash to buy the booze. For the locals, the Asian Games began with the football quarterfinal between South Korea and Japan and ended with the baseball final. There has been almost zero crowd involvement in other sports.
The conduct has drawn criticism from several quarters. The local media has called the Games a ‘bloated school sports day,’ while a Japanese official played with fire by calling Korea a ‘developing nation’ for the way it has conducted the event. Yasuhiro Nakamori, a spokesman for the Japanese delegation, was so incensed after realising that the football training venue did not have a locker room that he said, “we are used to it because most training venues at developing countries are like this.”
Tubagus Ade Lukman, chef de mission of next Asian Games’ hosts Indonesia, called the transport facilities second-rate. “As someone who attended both the Doha and Guangzhou Games, I would say that both were better than this year’s Asiad,” he was quoted as saying by the local media. “Transportation was especially second-rate.”
The organisers have been on the defensive throughout. “I do acknowledge the problems and apologize,” Kwon Kyung-sang, secretary general of the Organizing Committee, said. “But the criticism that the international sporting event had degenerated into a school sports day is very insulting.”
You tend to empathise with Kwon. As a branding exercise, the Games have had their moments. In 1986, the event gave Seoul the platform to host a successful Olympics two years later. Doha’s 2006 Games were seen as a significant step in Qatar’s international ambitions, laying the foundation for the country’s successful bid to hold soccer’s World Cup in 2022.
For Incheon, a city with continental ambitions and financial problems, it was crucial that the Games succeeded. But they have had a hard time selling these Games to the locals, who are still mourning the loss of hundreds of lives in a boat tragedy.
Incheon serves as the gateway to Korea and the Han River separates it from its sister-city Seoul. Ferries ply between Incheon and several cities dotted along the coastline.
Sadly, one of these ships, the MV Sewol, departed from Incheon last April with a course set for the outlying holiday island of Jeju, but never made it to port. The capsising tragedy claimed the lives of more than 300 people, including many children.
Organisers were keen to use the Asian Games as an opportunity to put the horrors of that fateful spring morning behind them and to restore the reputation of the city. But even 15 months after the incident, the people are in mourning.
The papers have been focussing on an issue that is 25 kilometres away in Seoul instead of the sporting extravaganza in their backyard. Kim Son-wan, 67, has been living on salt-water for the last three months to protest against the government’s lack of sensitivity with regards to the boat tragedy and the man has captured the imagination of the nation. “In such circumstances, how can we celebrate the Games?” asks Kim Dong-wo.
Incheon’s desire has been made more difficult by a general feeling that South Korea, as a whole, lacks enthusiasm for sporting events at the continental level. “The collective thinking in Korea is more interested in world events. It is all about star names. This can be a very tough market,” says Lee Jing-won, a South Korean journalist.
No white elephants
But it’s not been a disaster all through. By conducting the Games at one-tenth of the cost of Guangzhou Asiad, Incheon has shown the multi-discipline events need not be a financial burden for the host city. The venues have been smartly constructed, with little scope of leaving behind white elephants.
At a time when most nations are giving these sporting extravaganzas a cold shoulder, Incheon — though not perfect — may have shown the way forward. “They have certainly set an example. With better planning and execution, this can be done better. But in terms of making the Games cost effective, Incheon surely has set a great example,” an Olympic Council of Asia official said.