Nick Butler

In our line of work you find yourself in some fairly bizarre situations from time to time, and the last three days has certainly been up there in terms of the weird and wonderful.

It began with the Opening Ceremony of the Asian Beach Games, taking place on the beach - naturally - in a makeshift open air arena in downtown Danang on Saturday (September 24). VIPs and spectators alike crammed in onto packed benches as proceedings began in seemingly idyllic fashion. 

Moments later everyone was dashing for cover as the storm which had been forecast all day finally broke. Volunteers seemed to conjure umbrellas out of thin air as they charged forward to protect the dignitaries on the front row, The rest of us mere mortals were left to grapple with multi-coloured ponchos thoughtfully provided by organisers as the wind tried to its best to wrestle them out of our hands. 

After trying valiantly to remain composed and in his suit, even the watching International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was eventually helped into a poncho - a blue one, for the record, as they were out of red - while athletes continued to parade into an arena rapidly transforming into a venue more suitable for water polo. By the time the final teams had arrived everyone present from the Prime Minister of Vietnam down resembled a sodden and soaking mess, but it was all rather fun as a sense of camaraderie emerged despite the chaos.

Sodden spectators at the Asian Beach Games Opening Ceremony ©ITG
Sodden spectators at the Asian Beach Games Opening Ceremony ©ITG

And the funny thing was, it was a carbon copy of the Opening Ceremony of the last Asian Beach Games in Phuket two years ago when proceedings were briefly postponed due to a similarly destructive downpour. Holding the Beach Games outside of the Southeast Asian rainy season appears an overly novel idea...

By the following morning, everyone had dried off as action resumed with the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) General Assembly. The OCA deserve praise for the way they have allowed media attend all of their meetings in full this week, although a cynic would say that this was because nothing of note was decided there. Apart from numerous interjections from a delegation of plucky backbenchers from Sri Lanka, which included a question to the present Bach asking him to clarify his plans for the anti-doping world, proceedings best resembled a chorus of yes-men paying homage to their unswerving leadership.

"The way President Bach has handled problems in recent months is amazing," said a delegate from Pakistan. "It is strong leadership. It was a very positive discussion taken by the IOC Session in Rio."

Similar praise was then reserved for OCA boss Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah before setbacks were blamed on "misleading media representation", serving only to "undermine all of our positive projects". It is in these meetings away from prying eyes where you see what sports administrators really think.

There was one moment of genuine quality, however, which occurred at the end of Aichi and Nagoya’s successful bid presentation for the 2026 Asian Games. After a fairly unmemorable overview of their plans, up stepped the Mayor of Nagoya Takashi Kawamura to take the microphone with the composure of a seasoned performer. After managing to mention the Second World War about six times in a two minute speech, he burst into song to perform a revamped version of Elvis Presley's 1961 hit Can't Help Falling In Love.

"Would it be a sin...if Nagoya and Aichi host the 2026 Asian Games," the charismatic Mayor crooned to a rousing ovation.

Elvis impersonator and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura impressed as his city and Aichi were awarded the 2026 Asian Games at the OCA General Assembly in Danang ©OCA
Elvis impersonator and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura impressed as his city and Aichi were awarded the 2026 Asian Games at the OCA General Assembly in Danang ©OCA

After the shock appearance of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo "Super Mario" Abe rising from a green pipe at the Olympic Closing Ceremony at Rio 2016, it was another reminder of the surprising humility we can come to expect from our 2020 hosts, although Kawamura, it transpired, is something of a veteran Elvis impersonator, with his swept back jet black hair even adding to this impression.

Today my focus has returned to sport as I took a stroll around the main venues cluster in Bien Dong Park cluster. 

First up was beach soccer, where Afghanistan were leading 6-5 again China when I arrived. Within moments, they had scored again after an acrobatic overhead kick but within disaster then struck for the men in green. Their goalkeeper went down injured clutching his leg and they had nobody to bring on as a substitute. This prompted treatment which seemed to amount to nothing more than throwing water over his leg before, with cries of encouragement which sounded suspiciously like "run it off, son" in dari, he hobbled back on and action resumed.

Next up was a sport which seemed to amount to a man feinting towards two groups of two men joined together at the arm before one of them suddenlt unceremoniously attacked him in the most aggressive way possible. This was kabaddi, a helpful volunteer explained to me, a huge sport in India and Sri Lanka, the two countries who were battling on the sand as I arrived.

But the real violence was happening a few metres away at the muay thai, as hundreds of spectators crammed into the arena desperate to get one over their neighbours and bitter rivals, Thailand. A crowd including both the Thai and Vietnamese deputy Prime Ministers roared and hollered a brutal exhibition of punching, kicking, wrestling and, well, just about anything you could do to batter your opponent into submission. 

Bands played and drums were beaten furiously in the sort of atmosphere you could only find in this part of the world.

It was certainly different from the sort of sport I am familiar with, but it was exciting and gripping all the same.

Crowds pack into the Asian Beach Games muay thai venue ©ITG
Crowds pack into the Asian Beach Games muay thai venue ©ITG

What has really struck me so far is that multisport events are under greater pressure than ever before but still have huge potential, if they are delivered in the right way.

The OCA claim that awarding the 2026 Asian Games so far in advance shows-off a flourishing project, but clearly they are desperate in gain the security of a willing and reliable host as soon as possible. The Asian Youth Games have been postponed until 2021 after Jakarta pulled-out – the OCA seemingly let them on the grounds that they have enough on their plate as it is getting ready for the 2018 Asian Games - while the Asian Beach Games will now revert from a two to a four-year cycle.

Asia has led the way in pioneering multisport competitions but clearly the market of potential hosts is shrinking. This is similar to the situation with the Commonwealth Games, where a far from perfect Durban bid was the only option for 2022, and with the European Games, where Russian unsuitability means the 2019 edition is poised for Minsk in Belarus, a country often referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe”.

I wrote last week that interest in the Summer Olympic Games will remain so long as some necessary but relatively straightforward steps are taken by the IOC. But it certainly looks tougher for lesser events like these. Other models, like the convention of European Championships planned for Glasgow and Berlin in 2018, look more feasible.

Coastal rowing is another innovative event on the Asian Beach Games programme ©ITG
Coastal rowing is another innovative event on the Asian Beach Games programme ©ITG

Beach Games certainly have potential, and an Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) World Beach Games in San Diego with beach volleyball, surfing and variants of cheerleader-led American football and baseball would be spectacular. 

Yet they have to get it right and reach-out to the right audience; something ANOC seem to be belatedly realising after postponing by two years their rushed plans to host it in 2017.

Sport and sporting events are at a crossroads, clearly. 

Only by combining the spontaneity of the Nagoya Mayor with the local appeal of Vietnamese muay thai and the dogged resilience of the Afghan goalkeeper and those surviving Opening Ceremony thunderstorms can they thrive in a new era.