INCHEON, South Korea (AFP) – Asia’s athletes put on world-class performances and China stepped towards the 2016 Olympics but controversy was never far away at an engrossing Asian Games.
Between the “Gangnam Style” opening ceremony and Saturday’s spectacular close, 17 world records fell and dozens of potential Olympic champions were unearthed.
China topped the medals table with 151 golds, some way short of their record 199 in 2010 but easily enough to keep them top of Asia’s Olympics for the ninth time in a row.
A rare visit by a high-ranking North Korean delegation for Saturday’s closing ceremony warmed Korean ties and indicated that Pyongyang’s leaders enjoyed their team’s performance.
But away from the Games’ successes, doping, sexual harassment, problems with the officiating and even theft hogged the headlines in Incheon.
And with swathes of empty seats testament to an indifferent public reaction, the event’s legacy stands in question in what is now South Korea’s most indebted city.
Pop phenomenon Psy brought a dour opening ceremony to life with his hit “Gangnam Style”, heralding the start of 15 days of competition in 49 widespread venues in Incheon.
Two sexual harassment cases in the build-up to the tournament had brought swift condemnation and saw an Iranian football official sent home.
Qatar’s women’s basketball team were at the centre of a storm when they were ordered off the court for not removing their hijab headscarves, which are against rules set by the sport’s world body.
“This is an insult to us, they did not respect our religion,” Qatar forward Refaa Morjan Mohammed told AFP. Boxing rules were also in the spotlight when Indian boxer Sarita Devi tearfully refused her lightweight bronze medal in protest at the judging. The Philippines and Mongolia, who were also on the end of some questionable decisions, promised to take up the problem with the International Boxing Association.
In athletics, there was confusion as teenager Ruth Jebet was disqualified from steeplechase gold as she was about to step onto the victory podium, before being reinstated on appeal the following day. China’s gold medal count was its lowest since Busan 2002, and the team was also rocked by a positive drugs test to three-time hammer champion Zhang Wenxiu.
But swimmers Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen underlined their superiority and hurdler Xie Wenjun’s 110 metres win highlighted some promising performances in athletics.
Qatar’s Nigerian-origin Femi Ogunode set a new Asian record of 9.93sec in the 100m and also won the 200m, highlighting a rich haul of medals by African-born athletes representing Gulf states.
“I think it’s unfair because they are taller and have a longer stride,” men’s 100m silver medallist Su Bingtian of China told AFP.
South Korea were slow to come to the party but a thrilling men’s football win over North Korea in the dying seconds of extra-time brought the Asian Games’ biggest crowd to its feet.
The hosts’ star rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-Jae also delivered gold late in week two, making up for failures by swimmer Park Tae-Hwan and “God of Vault” Yang Hak-Seon.
North Korea’s athletes set five weightlifting world records and won 11 golds overall – all accompanied by praise for their leader Kim Jong-Un – to finish seventh on the table.
Among the six doping cases, Malaysia fought bitterly against the disqualification of wushu gold-medallist Tai Cheau Xuen before eventually conceding defeat.
Ex-Soviet state Kazakhstan finished fourth on the medals table behind China, South Korea and Japan, and ahead of Iran, helped by six golds in men’s boxing.
Perhaps the strangest episode concerned Japanese swimmer Naoya Tomita, who swiped a photographer’s US$7,500 camera from the Incheon pool deck.
It “happened in a flash, an act of impulse – like the devil got a hold of him”, said chef de mission Tsuyoshi Aoki.