Four years ago, a high-ranking Arabian prince charged his horse up a steep ramp with a burning torch in his hand to light the Asian Games flame on the roof of the Khalifa Stadium in Doha.

A few yards from the top, the horse's front right hoof slipped on a surface made greasy by a downpour that followed months of dry Gulf weather.

To a crowd of 50,000 and an audience of millions watching on television, it looked like Qatar's arrival on the grand sporting stage was about to be marked by embarrassment, if not serious injury.

The moment was heart-stopping to watch.

But through pushing with his legs and leaning forward, the prince was able to keep his black gelding Malibu thrusting upwards - instead of toppling sideways onto the ramp.

Brute strength from the horse did the rest and the pair stood calm against the desert night sky to herald the start of the 15th Asian Games Doha 2006.

It was a turning point not just for the two lives involved, but for Qatar.

On Friday, the Chinese city of Guangzhou will hold a spectacular opening ceremony for this tournament of 45 nations, 42 sports and 12,000 athletes that is second in scale only to the Olympics, but gets little attention outside the continent.

Ambitions

And Guangzhou, with a population of 12 million, is using Qatar and the Games as a benchmark for its own ambitions.

The rider on that day in Doha in 2006 was Sheikh Mohammed Bin Hamad Al-Thani, a son of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

In 2010, Sheikh Mohammed is fronting the Gulf state's bid to become the Middle East's first host of a football World Cup, the result of which we will know on December 2 in Geneva.

Qatar has had one Olympic bid turned down, but another may be in the pipeline.

It is hosting football's Asian Cup in January - the continent's equivalent of the European Championships, which will either be a celebratory precursor of World Cup 2022 or a wistful glimpse of what could have been.

Athletics' World Indoor Championships came to the country earlier this year, the MotoGP season gets under way annually at the Losail International Circuit, and top names in tennis compete at men's and women's world tour events such as the WTA World Championships, which Kim Clijsters won in Doha on October 31.

As for Malibu, he is living out his retirement in the main barn of the Al Shaqab endurance stables, which has become one of the world's most famous breeding centres for Arabian horses since opening in 1992.

Sheikh Mohammed is Al-Shaqab's chairman, and captain of Qatar's successful endurance racing team.

This broad ambition was not wasted on the Guangzhou organisers when they took the baton from Qatar.

The city, formerly known as Canton, is aiming to follow Beijing in hosting the Olympics, and has spent $17bn on preparations for the 16-day Asian Games.

When you invest so heavily, you want something back. Guangzhou is looking to expand its horizons in business, tourism and sport - and this tournament is not the end of the story.

Regimented

Having spent 11 days here, the operation is looking as slick and regimented as the one mounted by the Chinese capital two years ago.

The football competition got under way on November 7, with Qatar's under-23s starting the defence of their title with a 0-0 draw with Singapore and a late 2-1 win over India.

If Qatar is to host a World Cup, its senior team will have to improve greatly - something they have in common with the underperforming Chinese, who needed two late goals to beat Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday after losing to Japan.

With the first women's football World Cup in 1991 the most notable sporting event to have taken place here, it is off the field that Guangzhou is looking for a big win.

Mention of Qatar, Guangzhou or the Asian Games is still fairly likely to be met with a look of puzzlement in much of the world.

But whether you follow the next 16 days of sport or not, it's unlikely to be the last time you hear of this city.