Incheon 2014 medals

Guest post: Your guide to the 2014 Asian Games

Here’s a handy guide to this year’s Asian Games, courtesy of guest writer Brian Salmon.

Brian has been an official blogger for the Games since the start of the year and will be reporting from various events in Incheon, South Korea. If you’re interested in contributing a guest post with an Olympic sports theme, here are some details. They’re always welcome.

Incheon 2014 medals
By Brian Salmon

What do seals, music feuds, and a debonair equestrian from Cheshire, England have in common?

At first sight, not a lot; but delve a little closer and they are all part of the rich tapestry making up the Asian Games, which starts in South Korea later this month.

The Asian Games, what’s that about?

It is a multi-sport competition that all the nations of Asia can take part in, unless they have a Black Sea coastline or are called Israel. Though not at the same global level as the World Cup or Olympics, it can claim to be bigger than both events. Not only is there the full programme of Olympic disciplines, but several other sports are included because Asian athletes have excelled in them. Thus the schedule boasts the likes of ten-pin bowling, kabaddi where runners try to avoid wrestlers, and the acrobatic hands-free version of volleyball known as sepak takraw.

All together, 9,757 athletes have been registered to take part in the 36 sports, which is eight more than on the current Olympic roster. The Games will commence on 19 September, with the opening ceremony taking place in the host city of Incheon. By the time, 15 days later, that the other ceremony takes place, a mammoth 439 gold medals will have been awarded.

Incheon, the name rings a bell.

That is because the port city is the main gateway to enter South Korea. The award-winning Incheon airport serves as the international arrivals facility for Korean capital Seoul, which is a short train ride away across the Han River that separates the two cities. Ferries ply between Incheon and several cities dotted along the Chinese coastline.

Sadly, one of these ships, the MV Sewol, departed from Incheon this April with a course set for the outlying holiday island of Jeju, but never made it to port. The capsizing tragedy claimed the lives of more than 300 people, including many children.

Thus, the Games represent a chance for the residents of Incheon to put the horrors of that fateful spring morning behind them, and to restore the reputation of the city.

Sounds like it was a troubled build up to the Games.

Not at all. Unlike the World Cup in Brazil, there was never any doubt that all 49 venues would be built or refurbished on time and within budget. Also, the Koreans have experienced none of the security concerns associated with the period leading up to the recent Olympics in London and Sochi.

Even their unpredictable neighbours to the north are co-operating. On the first occasion that South Korea hosted the Asian Games (Seoul 1986), North Korea boycotted the event, and they were also a no-show for the 1988 Olympics. They did send a team to Busan (South Korea’s other major port) for the 2002 edition of the Games. However, this time around, PR Korea will be sending a sizeable contingent of athletes who are expected to do well in judo, weightlifting and archery. This new tolerance has also been reflected in the choice of the official Games mascots.

Mascots, are they cuddly?

Most definitely. They are three highly adorable, fluffy cartoon seals that are based on the creatures that swim in Incheon harbour. Unlike Wenlock and Mandeville, the rather scary-looking mascots for London 2012, the three seal siblings are undeniably cute. Their names are Vichuon, Baramae and Chumoro, which are the Korean words for Light, Wind and Dance respectively.

The seals were chosen because they have free movement in the sea, and can pass easily from South Korea to the Northern republic. Thus, they are an expression that one day the Korean peninsular will be reunited.

What about the Games themselves, who will do well?

It is almost a foregone conclusion that China will amass the most silverware, 1978 being the last occasion they failed to top an Asian Games medal table. Their swimmers, gymnasts, and shooters are used to multiple podium success. Freestyle swimmer Sun Yang will be the man to beat in the pool – the double London Olympic champion will be looking to add to the four medals he acquired at the last edition of the Games in Guangzou.

It will be a major shock if anyone prevails against 3m synchronised diver Wu Minxia. Her first gold medal in an illustrious career was at the 2001 World Championships. She has since picked up a further 21 of the same colour, including three consecutive Olympic golds dating back to the Athens Olympics in 2004. Her Chinese diving coaches are so dedicated to the pursuit of success that the star diver was reportedly not informed, until after her London 2012 triumph, that her grandmother had passed away a year previously.

Other members of the Chinese team to look out for include canoe slalom paddler Lu Li and UK-based equestrian rider Alex Hua Tian. Lu recently won a World Cup when she was the fastest over London’s testing Lee Valley Olympic course. The Eton-educated Hua Tian spent his childhood in Beijing and Hong Kong. Alex has the nickname of One in a Billion, because he is the only Chinese rider to compete regularly on the world stage. He trains a string of horses from his Cheshire base. The stylish equestrian also acts as the brand ambassador for one of Britain’s best-known tailors, and is often pictured in a smooth suit. Alex is going to find the competition much rougher in Korea; the Qataris have pumped a lot of money into his chosen sport, and will be expecting a return on their investment.

How are the hosts likely to fare?

Last time out, South Korea were the next best nation after the all-conquering Chinese, and will hope to use their home advantage to increase their medal tally. Perhaps it is the yin and yang symbol adorning their national flag, but the Koreans tend to win in contrasting sports where they can either stand motionless, or hit people in the head and chest.

Not many teams have the luxury of being able to discard the World Cup titleholder nor the Olympic champion. The strength in depth among Korea’s archers means that both Yun Ok Hee and Ki Bo Bae will not feature at Incheon. The top two ranked bow women in the world (!) failed to make a sufficient impact at the ruthless Korean selection trials. 50m pistol Olympic champion at both Beijing and London, Jin Jong-Oh is one of a number of shooters looking to defend their Asian Games titles; Kim Jang-mi is also well along the road to world domination over the shorter distances.

The Korean flag is also likely to be hoisted skywards following the conclusion of competitions in fencing and taekwondo. The Koreans have been sharing their martial arts expertise with players and coaches from less-developed Asian nations in a programme called Incheon Vision 2014. However, this may not be enough for the two female Nepalese taekwondo athletes – Manita Shahi and Ayesha Shakya – to return to the Asian Games podium. The 2006 Doha bronze medallists are still using outdated, non-electrical chest guards in training.

Anyone feeling the pressure?

Freestyle swimmer Park Tae-hwan has done it all; the Beijing 2008 400m champion has already amassed 14 Asian Games medals. However, the person behind the face on the posters knows that he will be competing in front of his home crowd, in the pool that bears his name. Park is also aware that in order to triumph, he will need to find a way past bitter rival Sun Yang; the man who pipped him to 400m gold at the London Aquatics Centre. Their clashes in the pool promise to be one of the highlights of the Games in Incheon.

Unsurprisingly, the visage of Son Yeon-jae has also featured prominently in the Games marketing campaigns. The rhythmic gymnast, currently ranked fifth in the world, was declared to be one of the 11 most beautiful athletes present at the London Olympics. However, to become the all-around champion, she needs to ward off the challenge of Japan’s Minagawa Kaho and China’s Deng Senyue.

Squash player Nicol David suffered a surprise World Open loss this year – however the Malaysian bounced back and is well-positioned to once again claim a Commonwealth and Asian Games gold combo.

Also under pressure are Korea’s handballers; long accustomed to success at continental level, they are currently going through a barren spell. The men surprisingly did not qualify for next year’s World Championship in Qatar and, in the last edition of the Games, the women failed for the first time to pick up a gold. Asia’s male footballers are also aware of the need for improvement, following a disappointing World Cup in Brazil. For the ladies, current world champions Japan have not selected some of their star players; how will their young, inexperienced team fare against the likes of China and Chinese Taipei, who have also been drawn in their group?

I have never heard of Chinese Taipei. Where is it? And are there any more huge match-ups?

For the fortnight of the Games, the island of Taiwan gets rechristened to avoid giving offence to its much larger neighbour. Other political minefields are going to occur when India and Pakistan meet in kabaddi and hockey. India recently picked up Commonwealth silver in the sport involving sticks, and are the all-time Olympic champions. Pakistan, however, have a much superior record at the Asian Games. Unfortunately the cricket will not witness a similar sub-continental clash, as India have declined to send any teams. Pakistan will only defend the title of women’s champions which they won at the 2010 Games.

Afghanistan will fancy their chances of picking up another cricket medal (it being the only sport officially approved by the Taliban), like the surprise silver they won in Guangzhou. However, to do so, they will need to overcome either Sri Lanka or current men’s champions Bangladesh. The Games organisers have determined that as the Koreans do not understand cricket, no admission will be charged to watch any of the games.

The Koreans’ reluctance to grasp the finer points of the game is odd, particularly given their devotion to another game involving a bat – baseball. Should they beat equally baseball-crazy Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) or Japan (especially Japan), expect the polite clapping to go up a notch or two. In softball, Japan have recently retained their world title, and are expected to stare down all pretenders.

Another rivalry to watch out for is the clash inside the velodrome between China’s Guo Shuang and Hong Kong’s Lee Wai Sze. Technically, inside is not correct as Incheon’s track is of the outdoor, uncovered, extra-long 333m variety. Guo has four Olympic medals to her name; she thought she had won gold in the team sprint in London, however a disqualification meant she had to be content with the runner-up prize. Lee claimed the bronze in the keirin, just behind Shuang; however Lee has proved that she can get the better of Guo, with her thrilling 500m time trial gold in the 2010 Asian Games. Now that Victoria Pendleton has retired, and Anna Meares seems close to making a similar decision, it means the two sprinters are vying for the right to be regarded as the quickest lady on the track.

Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei may be ranked as badminton’s world number one, but the player with two Olympic and one Asian Games titles is the controversial Lin Dan. Will Wei finally prevail, should they meet yet again on an Incheon court?

These rivalries seem a little tame, they have settled all their differences on the field of play. Do you have something that will really get the juices flowing?

As it happens, yes.

A long-running musical feud has re-erupted, resulting in a bombardment of social media by disgruntled fans. Initially, the plan looked simple; invite best-selling Korean pop boyband JYJ to become honorary ambassadors and get them to record “Only One”, the official song of the Asian Games. However, the world of K-pop is full of intrigue and backstabbing. Singers Jaejoon, Yoochun and Junsu had been members of the immensely successful five-piece combo known as TVXQ. In 2009, the Seoul courts agreed with JYJ that the contracts they had signed with previous manager SM Entertainment were grossly restrictive and illegal. It may have been coincidence bu,t for the next three years, JYJ found themselves unable to appear on Korean television screens.

Despite this treatment, JYJ’s popularity has remained undiminished. In their honorary ambassador role, they have attracted huge crowds in every country where they performed to promote the Games.

However, a few months ago, SM Entertainment signed a contract to provide performers for the opening and closing ceremonies. There was a horrible shock for the fans of the boyband when the list of musicians for the ceremonies was released. Of course, Psy would be there to belt out “Gangnam Style”, and there was room too for EXO, another SM Entertainment boyband. Incredibly, though, the performers of the official song were nowhere to be seen.

It looked like the official slogan of the Games should be changed to “Diversity shines here (only if you are signed to the right label)”.

Outraged fans barraged the multiple social media streams set up by the Games organisers, demanding respect for their heroes. Eventually, a compromise was agreed and JYJ will now be allowed to strut their stuff at the opening ceremony.

K-Pop seems to be full of three-letter words, and the Asian Games looks likely to become another three-letter word with musical associations. I am predicting that Incheon 2014 will be a HIT.

With thanks to Brian. Guest posts are, obviously, the views of the guest author and not necessarily those of their organisation, employer etc, nor this website.