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Empty seats, judging rows took gloss off Games

Busan: Rows of empty seats and officiating controversies at the 14th Asian Games are likely to put a damper on Busan’s reported dream of mounting a successful bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Some extraordinary individual performances, most notably from Japanese swimmer Kosuke Kitajima and China’s weightlifters, and a shock basketball upset — South Korea’s defeat of China — were the highlights of the Asian Games. But not even the heroics of Kitajima, who broke the oldest world record in swimming on his way to collecting three golds, could help capture the imagination of local fans.

Staged barely four months after millions of South Koreans had been swept up in the euphoria of the football World Cup, the Asian Games appeared to suffer the hangover of that nation-wide party.

Organisers put a brave face on ticket sales — only about half the available tickets were sold — as the Games wound up.

“The figures of the spectators exceeded our expectations,” said Busan Asian Games Organising Committee president Chung Soon-taek. “Events like volleyball, basketball and taekwondo were completely sold out (at times) due to their popularity. Other events sold less well than we would have liked.”

Chung also acknowledged problems caused by poor officiating. The boxing ring and the badminton arena witnessed the fiercest complaints ranging from accusations of biased judging to downright incompetence.

Indonesia staged a dramatic two-hour boycott midway the men’s team final after several decisions went against their star player Taufik Hidayat.

At least there was no disputing the brilliance of Kitajima, crowned as Athlete of the Games at the closing ceremony. He came into the event carrying a wrist injury and astounded even himself in smashing American Mike Barrowman’s 10-year-old 200m breaststroke record.

“I honestly didn’t know I was going that fast. It was only when I hit the wall and looked up that I realised it was a world record,” said a bemused Kitajima after clocking 2:09.97, the first man ever below 2:10.

Despite having Kitajima in their ranks, Japan were overwhelmed in the pool by China, who won the gold medal race 20-11. Those 20 medals were part of a Chinese haul of 150 golds that saw them finish a long way ahead of their rivals at the top of the medal table. South Korea were second, Japan third and Kazakhstan fourth.

The issue of drugs did not seriously disrupt the Games. Around 750 to 800 athletes were drug tested and the only positive dope test confirmed was on women’s 1,500m champion and 5,000 bronze-medallist Sunita Rani, who was consequently stripped of both medals.

North Koreans participated as a way of promoting reunification and their presence became a focal point, from cheering blocks kept separated from the rest of the crowds to athletes that won 33 medals, nine of them gold.

Palestine captured their first medal, a boxing bronze, and Afghanistan won a bronze in women’s taekwondo, with Roia Zamani triumphing over the troubles in her homeland to leave her mark on the Games.

The war-torn nation’s footballers were brutally made aware of the fact that the road back from sporting exile is going to be a long one. In three games, they conceded 32 goals. Not that it mattered to them. “We were exhausted by the time we got to South Korea, but we didn’t care. We are just so happy to be playing football again,” said defender Rahil Ahmed.

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