The East Asian sporting boom

The region is increasingly becoming the destination of choice for major sporting events, writes John Duerden.

Asian tiger: Japan celebrates winning hosting duties for the 2020 Olympics [Reuters]
Asian tiger: Japan celebrates winning hosting duties for the 2020 Olympics [Reuters]

They were right. The 21st century is the Asian Century. In terms of economics, finance and politics – about which there has been plenty written already – the continent has been steaming ahead.

Culturally, it still has some way to go but it is getting there and in a sporting sense, it is probably somewhere in between.

All in all though, the gravitational pull in all kind of sports fields is moving in the direction of Asia and especially the big three of the Eastern region in Japan, China and South Korea.

Few were surprised when earlier this month, Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Battling with Istanbul and Madrid, the Japanese capital was seen as the safe choice – in itself, a statement as to what the continent can offer.

The Olympics have been to Tokyo before, back in 1964, and then visited Seoul 24 years later but in the last decade or so, the gears really have shifted. From the 2002 World Cup onwards, East Asia has demonstrated that it can stage the biggest events with style. And as well as the world’s biggest tournaments held every four years, there are plenty of other annual showpieces. 

The 2008 Beijing Olympics stand out but Korea hosted the 2011 World Athletic Championships and is preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics, two years before Tokyo swings into action for the summer equivalent. With the 2015 Youth Olympics in China, the Presidents Cup golf tournament in Korea and the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, the big three East Asian nations are putting their best feet forwards.

And after the 2002 World Cup, Korea and Japan entered the bidding to host the 2022 tournament but it was seen as just too soon. If China wants the big football showpiece, it can have it sooner rather than later.

Main attraction

The question is why the region is increasingly becoming the site of choice for the major sporting bodies and why it is so keen to be seen as the place to be.

“I think East Asia is attractive to the International Olympic Committee and other sports organisations because of two main factors,” Ed Hula, founder of specialist Olympic business site Around the Rings, told Al Jazeera.

“One is the willingness of potential host cities or host countries to take the responsibility of staging these events. Second is the growth of these populations and marketplaces that make for an enthusiastic spectator and fan base to support these events.”

This can often be borne out with the fact that potential bidders in the region seem to find it easier than western competitors to secure the support of the people. A significant string to Pyeongchang’s bow in 2018 was the overwhelming backing it had from the Korean public compared to its European rivals in France and Germany. 

In football terms, Korea just wanted it more. In the weeks and months prior to the end of the race, levels of support in the local province reached 95 per cent and in the country as a whole 87 per cent. Annecy and Munich spent much of the time languishing in the fifties.

If the people want it then their rulers also seem keen. “Compared to the West, I believe East Asian countries are more willing to provide the sort of government guarantees often needed to launch a bid for an event,” said Hula.”

Korean and Japanese government officials bent over backwards to help the bid in any way possible and encouraged the business sector to get involved.

Enthusiasm, private and public support, massive and increasingly affluent populations and no shortage of funds to spend on facilities, an East Asian candidate is always going to be a serious competitor in any bidding race.

The countries themselves have their own reasons for wanted to be the centre of all kinds of sporting parties according to Marcus Luer CEO of sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia.

“Japan is the third biggest economy in the world so it wants to show the world that it still got ‘it’,” Luer said.

“Korea [wants to say] we have equally big companies and technology [as Japan] and don’t forget us. Koreans always had powerful players in the IOC and FIFA ranks, so it’s not surprising they can punch above their weight in many cases. China, as the second biggest economy in the world and still with plenty of growth potential in the world it’s natural that all sports federations are attracted to China and the riches it has to offer.”

The shift east does not seem likely to stop any time soon.

John Duerden has lived in Asia for over a decade and writes about Asian football for a variety of international and local media including ESPN, Associated Press, The Guardian, 442, New York Times, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated & International Herald Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyduerden

Source: Al Jazeera

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