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Chinese-dominated Asian Games ‘put Qatar on map’

There was doping. There was a death. There were more medals and more countries than ever before. And there was no stopping the Chinese.

Tiny Qatar’s effort to prove that the Arab world is ready to host the Olympics came to a close on Friday as the 15-day Asian Games, the biggest sporting event in the world’s most populous continent, wrapped up with an unexpected bonus — the hosts meeting Iraq in the final of the one event nearly everyone here watches, soccer.

Just about everywhere else, however, the games were a celebration of Chinese prowess — and possibly a harbinger of things to come when Beijing hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The Chinese claimed 165 of the 428 golds. The closest competitors were South Korea, with just 58, and Japan with 50.

”I think the Chinese dominance of the games should serve as an impetus for the rest of us to work harder,” conceded Tsutomu Hayashi, the head of the Japanese delegation. ”There is much for us to learn.”

From the track and the pool to the beach volleyball courts, the Chinese demonstrated yet again that they are far and away the strongest sports power in Asia, and they did so with an often young team that they are cultivating for the 2008 Olympics.

Large team

China brought the largest team to the Asian Games — 647 athletes. Of those, 413 were participating in their first major multisport games and averaged just 23,3 years old.

Some established Chinese stars were here.

Liu Xiang, the world-record holder in the 110m hurdles, headlined the Chinese athletics team. But he didn’t need to shine, breezing to an easy victory in 13,15 seconds for an Asian Games record, nearly half a second slower than his world mark of 12,88.

China had a harder time in the pool, where they had to split the golds with Japan, and South Korea proved strong in the team sports, defeating Chinese opponents in field hockey and volleyball. In the lesser known, non-Olympic sports, the Chinese also allowed others a moment in the limelight — India, for instance, won its tag-like game of kabaddi and Vietnam took gold in sepak takraw, an acrobatic combination of volleyball and soccer.

Olympic champion Hossein Rezazadeh, the ”Iranian Hercules”, had no trouble defending his weightlifting title here, and Malaysian squash star Nicol David, the reigning world champion, regained hers after a surprise upset four years ago.

Elsewhere, the Chinese juggernaut was nearly invincible, ending Japan’s 20-year dominance in judo and ending their undefeated status in synchronised swimming as well. On the tennis court, Zheng Jie overpowered India’s Sania Mirza to take the women’s singles gold.

Even so, Chinese team officials saw room for improvement.

”We must redouble our efforts to meet the greater coming challenges,” said Liu Peng, president of the Chinese Olympic Committee. ”Although we achieved excellent results in the Asian Games, it does not mean that we will have the same performance in the Olympic Games.”

Problems

For Qatar, which is planning to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Games have been a proving ground and, with more than 10 000 athletes from all 45 countries and territories represented in the Asian Olympic Council, they were not without problems — both expected and unforeseen.

With doping controls tighter than ever, two weightlifters from Myanmar and two more from Uzbekistan were disqualified for using banned substances. A bodybuilder from Iraq was also caught with the steroid nandrolone in his baggage.

Heavy rain drenched many of the events, catching organisers in this desert country off guard.

The games took on a tragic note at midpoint, when Kim Hyung-chil, a 47-year-old member of South Korea’s three-day event team and a former Olympian, was crushed by his horse after hitting a jump on a mud-slicked course. It was the first death of a competitor in the Games’ 55-year history.

Overall, Qatari officials said they were encouraged. Never before, they noted, had all the countries in the region participated.

Iraq marked its return, and North and South Korea even marched into the Games under a ”unification” flag. On the sidelines of the games, the two Koreas tried to work out plans to field a joint team for Beijing, but made little progress.

Qatar spent $2,8-billion on preparing venues, including a major upgrade to the 50 000-seat Khalifa Stadium and the construction of the Aspire indoor sports complex, the world’s largest indoor multisports dome. It also provided an athletes’ village with 11 535 beds.

New roads are planned to cut down on traffic congestion and dozens of new high-rise hotels and office towers are being constructed as a thriving city grows out of the desert.

”We think these Games will put Qatar on the map,” said Sheik Saoud bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani, secretary general of the Qatar Olympic Committee. — Sapa-AP

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