The opening ceremony of any major sporting event is meant to project the best image of the host nation. And Indonesia, one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse countries on the planet, had plenty to offer as the 18th Asian Games officially spurted to life last night with a dazzling medley of music, dance, light and colour at the capital’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
Even at the risk of sounding clichéd, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that all roads in the capital yesterday led to the iconic Southeast Asian sporting venue. It was the main stadium for the 1962 edition of the Games in Jakarta, and after undergoing several renovations down the years, was bestowed the honour of being witness to history being made once again.
Jakarta often gets a lot of negative press for its pollution and notorious traffic jams but the authorities have ensured that the Games are not hampered in any way with some strikingly innovative — and controversial — measures.
For example, a huge section of the heavily polluted Senitong river – dubbed the ‘kali’ river after its black colour – has been covered by nylon sheets to prevent its foul smell from spreading into the air, and much to the alarm of human rights activists, about 77 known criminals were shot dead in a clean-up drive leading up to the Games. Some relatively petty criminals were shot in the leg so that they don’t get ideas about causing trouble during the event.
As far as traffic is concerned, an odd-even number formula has been implemented to curb congestion, and schools have been closed for the entire duration of the event.
Enthusiastic spectators, however, didn’t take any risk as they headed to the 78,000-capacity stadium a few hours ahead of schedule. Tickets for the ceremony were lapped up early and there were reports of scalpers selling them at a hefty premium.
Those lucky to be inside the stadium witnessed the start of the biggest party the country is throwing in its history, as athletes from 45 countries in their resplendent national colours proudly took part in the traditional march-past. The joy on their faces was more than evident as they smiled broadly, with many recording the event on their smart phones.
Indonesia’s large contingent obviously got the loudest cheers. Earlier, a video of the country’s president, Joko Widodo, doing stunts on a motorcycle on the streets of Jakarta was shown. It evoked memories of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony where the Queen parachuted down from a helicopter with “James Bond” Daniel Craig giving her company.
Widodo’s act, although not as funny as the Queen’s, saw the Indonesians respond with hearty cheers. The media present at the Main Press Centre let out a collective whoop of approval. The Japanese seemed the most amused.
“Jokowi is a totally fun guy. Everybody likes him,” Indonesian online journalist Manggala Mohamed remarked, referring to the president by his informal name. The 57-year-old president was later pictured in the stands swaying to the music being belted out during the show.
Widodo, who rose to the highest office in the country from humble beginnings, has been acclaimed as a reformer and was already popular as the hands-on mayor of Jakarta before becoming the president.
In 2012, he was ranked third in the world among mayors for “transforming a crime-ridden city into a regional centre for art and culture and an attractive city to tourists”. In 2013, he was nominated as the global mayor of the month by the City Mayors Foundation, based in London.
Meanwhile, the Palestine delegation was also greeted with loud cheers, the athletes having made it to the Games despite the hardship they have been enduring under the stifling Israeli occupation.
The warring Koreas marched under a blue and white unification flag, once again exemplifying the power of sport to trump politics – at least until the next round of recriminations takes things back to square one. Forgive the pessimism here, but that is what history tells us. This is after all the 11th time they have marched together at a sports event!
Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC) President HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani led the cheers for his country’s contingent during the ceremony which saw squash star Abdulla al-Tamimi carry the national flag.
“It was an honour to be chosen as the flag-bearer of the nation’s squad at such a big event. It’s an experience I will never forget,” he said later.
Qatar are represented by 222 sportsmen and women – the most prominent among them being shooter Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah, 400m hurdler Abderrehman Samba and of course, al-Tamimi.
They will be hoping to better their haul of 10 gold medals at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, with the athletics squad expected to grab most of the honours.
But as far as the top accolades at the Games are concerned, anyone looking past China would be deluding himself.
With a massive squad of nearly 850 athletes, it would be a shock to the global sporting order if either Japan or South Korea were to topple China in Indonesia.
Japan, who have been overshadowed by South Korea at recent Asian Games, would be keen to reverse the trend this time as they gear up to host the next Olympics in 2020.
“I am looking forward to our athletes challenging China at the Asian Games,” the Japan delegation head Yasuhiro Yamashita said at a press conference yesterday.
President Widodo later declared open the 18th Asian Games and 1992 Barcelona Olympics badminton gold medallist Susi Susanti lit the Games flame. Fireworks exploded over the Jakarta sky signalling the end of the $55mn opening ceremony and the start of the two-week continental sporting extravaganza.
The razzle-dazzle of the opening ceremony may soon fade out of memory, but the records to be set over the next two weeks, the hits and misses, the tears of joy, or even of despair, most certainly won’t.