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World: Asian Games Grow Into Major World Event

Iran's female tae kwon do team will compete in these Asian Games (file photo) (AFP) DOHA/PRAGUE, December 1, 2006 -- Opening ceremonies take place tonight for the 15th annual Asian Games, a sporting event that is second in size only to the Summer Olympic Games.

Some 13,000 athletes from 45 countries will march into Khalifa Stadium in Qatar's capital, Doha, to launch the two-week event.

The quadrennial games have grown from modest beginnings in 1951, when athletes from 11 countries gathered in New Delhi to compete in just six sports.

Spectators can choose from a total of 424 events in 46 different sports in the next fortnight, beamed to a potential worldwide television audience of 3 billion people.

Grand Spectacle

Organizers of these Asian Games boast that they have planned a stunning opening ceremony at the 50,000-seat stadium. With some 65,000 costumes from countries across Asia, they hope the ceremony -- and the competition that follows -- will rival the Summer Olympic Games.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Kabyl Makesh, who is in Doha for the games, says the athletes' village -- a temporary community for competitors and journalists -- is already a bustling center of activity. Makesh says cultural events on the sidelines of the competition give the program an international flavor similar to that of the Summer Olympic Games.

"The general mood here is quite bright despite cloudy weather and windy conditions. All of the necessary conditions for athletes are here," Makesh says. "And in the evenings, there are concerts. From different countries, pop and music stars have come [together with sports delegations]; they will give concerts. So there will be days [that highlight musicians and artists] of individual countries."

Traditional Strengths

Sports officials from across Asia concede that major sports powers like China, Japan, and South Korea are likely to bring home the most medals from Doha. But coaches and sports experts from Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan say they have high hopes that their teams will not come home empty-handed.

Nesip Junisbay, one of Kazakhstan's most prominent sports journalists, tells RFE/RL that his country's best hopes for medals lie with the same sports in which it excelled when the country was a Soviet republic.

"[Kazakhstan] will be probably able to perform well in our traditional sports -- boxing and wrestling," Junisbay says. "We used to be great in light athletics, as well; I would say we were one of the best in Asia in [that area]. But today, there are many talented young athletes rising to prominence from other parts [of Asia] in that sector. We can see this from many [previous] world and Asian championships."

Tajikistan's deputy sports minister, Nargis Nabieva, says the chance to compete at such a prestigious international level makes this competition an important steppingstone to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

"[The Asian Games] will show how our athletes are ready to participate and be victorious in international competitions -- including the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing."

"This competition is another phase for athletes to achieve the right to participate in the Olympic Games," Nabieva says. "[The Asian Games] will show how our athletes are ready to participate and be victorious in international competitions -- including the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing."

Politics Aside?

As with the Olympics, there are political implications to the Asian Games. Victories translate into good publicity for athletes' home countries. That has political leaders hoping their competitors reach the top of the awards podium so that their national anthems are played and their flags hoisted.

On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan's president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, used a sendoff for athletes on November 22 to criticize the domestic political opposition that has been staging major protests in that country.

"Unfortunately, some business leaders here finance different rallies," Bakiev said. "It would be better if they supported Kyrgyzstan's athletes."

The competition at Doha marks only the second time that the Asian Games have been staged in the Middle East. The last time was in 1974, when Iran was the host country.

'No Gender Restrictions'

Unlike an all-Muslim competition called the "Islamic Solidarity Games" -- which was hosted by Saudi Arabia in 2005 -- the Asian Games will allow female athletes to compete and will allow women spectators into the stadium.

The organizers in Doha insist that they will not enforce an Islamic dress code for female competitors. RFE/RL correspondent Makesh reports that men also will be allowed to watch the women's competitions.

"There will be no restrictions," Makesh says. "Men and other sports fans have the right to enter and observe events in which women compete. In recent Islamic [Solidarity] Games, there were some restrictions -- and this was reported to the organizers of the Asian Games. That is why I think there will be no restrictions or abuse of their powers."

Iran was due to send a record 20 women to Qatar. But the country's female karate team decided to boycott the event after the Asian Karate Federation refused to approve the wearing of Islamic head scarves during bouts.

Iranian female athletes in tae kwon do will not be affected because they wear headguards that fully secure the head scarf in competition.

Afghanistan will be sending a women's team to the Asian Games for the second time. The country's hopes for a medal lie with tae kwon do fighter Roia Zamani, who won a bronze medal in the 72-kilogram middleweight division four years ago.

Zamani wears a headscarf under her helmet. She became involved in the sport while living as a refugee in Iran -- a legacy of her family fleeing the former Taliban regime.

The coach of Afghanistan's karate team, Gulam Jalani Gorab, tells RFE/RL that the country's Olympic Committee made a special request for women to be included on the team.

"It is the reality," Gorab says. "We want our sisters, on the one hand, to have an active role in society and also in Afghan sports -- so their presence [at the Asian Games in Doha] is very valuable. Their abilities are not low. Some are competing at a higher level, and some of them are even teachers of sports. They are good athletes. But compared to the men's team -- our male athletes are strong and have much more experience in such competitions; they've even won some medals."

Chance To Shine

The Asian Games are, by far, the largest international sports competition undertaken by Qatar. But sports officials in Doha think it is just the beginning. Qatar's Olympic Committee has announced plans to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics when the application process begins next year.

It will face competition from Madrid, New Delhi, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and Tokyo. The United States may also enter Chicago or Los Angeles.

Qatari Olympic Committee Secretary-General Shiekh Saoud bin Abd al-Rahman al-Thani insists that the 15th Asian Games will prove that Doha is capable of hosting the Olympic Games.

(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Kazakh services.)

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

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