IN MY VIEW: Asia set to become a pioneer for the world in its second sporting century
First published on insidethegames.biz
It was a pleasure last week to get the briefest of respites from the British winter by visiting Manila for the Olympic Council of Asia General Assembly and Asian Sporting Centenary celebrations.
As well as the weather - a happy median between the sweltering conditions at the Australian Open in Melbourne and the freezing ones covering much of Europe and North America - the event once again exemplified the wide-ranging power of sport and, in particular, the growth of it in the world's largest continent.
This first point was best illustrated simply by the decision to keep the event in the Philippines despite the ongoing repercussions of Typhoon Haiyan.
Although the luxury trappings of the Hotel Sofitel prevented much exploration of the true Philippines, it took only the plane descent into Manila to illustrate first-hand the flood plains which still ravage the countryside and keeps whole regions isolated physically as well as in terms of power and supplies.
Although the Typhoon had forced the postponement and transferral of the event from last November on Baracay Island, it would have been easier still to have moved it to a different country altogether. The fact that this decision was resisted typifies the solidarity and unity which has been a constant feature of Asia's first sporting century.
What better way to illustrate the significance of sport than the fact that, on arrival, OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah immediately met with Philippine leader Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino to discuss a range of support issues. This followed a similar visit to, and meeting with, Turkmenistan leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov last week to discuss how hosting sporting events can raise the profile of his country.
Different reasons but still the same predominant theme of progress through sport.
Similar success has been achieved through numerous other mechanisms - from the work undertaken by Jordan-based charity Generations for Peace to the programmes outlined during the General Assembly by the Organising Committees for both Incheon 2014 and Tokyo 2020.
The OCA-Incheon Vision 2014 programme, for example, now in the final of its seven year focus ahead of September's Games, has benefited 642 participants from 30 National Olympic Committees in 148 different projects. In contrast, the Japanese Government's "Sport for Tomorrow" project has only just been announced but hopes to impact more than one million athletes in over 100 countries over the next six years.
The OCA and Asia has also been something of a pioneer for other continental associations.
As well as representatives from all 45 member nations of the OCA, figures were welcomed from the rest of the world - with IOC vice-president John Coates and Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa head Lassana Palenfo among those in attendance. As ever in the Olympic Movement the blend of different cultures and backgrounds present was remarkable and the motto of the Incheon Asian Games - "diversity shines here" - has never been more apt.
To give a personal example, I found this out to my cost when having dinner with two French speaking members from Africa. After struggling to keep up with the conversation - in contrast with my Belgian born insidethegames colleague who was in her element - I somehow understood the gist of a question relating to what flavours were in my desert.
Ah, strawberry and apple, I thought to myself, I can definitely answer this in French.
But I had not accounted for the combination of pressure, rustiness and linguistic incompetence which caused me to eventually respond: "Oui, il a du fromage et des pommes de terre en elle."
Fortunately these international participants were able to integrate slightly more effectively than me and it is remarkable how much can be learned from Asia's success.
One example of this is the Beach Games which started in Asia and has since grown into other continents as demand grows for a world event at some point in the future. Very much a personal enthusiasm of his, Sheikh Ahmad spoke with genuine passion about the prospect of wrestling and tennis events being added to the Phuket 2014 programme.
"Tennis on the beach," he speculated, "I am so excited as to how that would work."
New sports coming out of Asia are also gradually spreading around the world - with two good examples being the Central Asian combat sports of sambo and kurash. The Asian Sambo Union has now been officially recognised by the OCA while Kurush, a sport thousands of years old in Uzbekistan which bears some similarities with judo, has made remarkable progress after flexing its international arms over recent decades.
It is now played all over the world and boasts honorary Presidents including Sheikh Ahmad and Palenfo as well as the leader of the European Olympic Committees Patrick Hickey, while the 2014 World Championships to be held in Istanbul in December hopes to attract more than 300 competitors from 50 countries encompassing all five continents.
Anti-doping is another area in which Asia has received praise. During the General Assembly, World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) representative Rob Koehler congratulated the OCA for introducing a "fun run" and "learn initiatives" with students and young athletes as well for hosting a Regional Anti Doping Organisation (RADO) Conference in Kuwait this week.
"The OCA have been so instrumental and they are the one continental federation who have really shown support," he told insidethegames afterwards. "Through them we are getting more and more engaged with other continents like Africa and Europe."
Even in those areas where Asia has not been so strong, such as in attracting commercial sponsorship for individual National Olympic Committees, improvements are being taken and a conference to be held alongside September's Asian Games will highlight the potential of bringing more sponsors to "the most desirable and affluent young market in the world."
But the best example of Asian growth is in bidding for recent and future sporting events.
In addition to the unmatched number of continental events - encompassing indoor, beach, youth and combat varieties - Asia is also hosting more and more global events. The Youth Olympics will be held in Nanjing this summer before two consecutive Olympic and Paralympic Games in the form of Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020. As well as the traditional regional powers new countries, including Turkmenistan, are also increasingly flexing their bidding arms.
Following Stockholm's withdrawal from the race for the 2022 Olympics amid doubts about public and Government backing which are also relevant to other European candidates, the prospects of more Asian success in that race for Almaty and Beijing are looking brighter than ever.
In these economic times Asia simply has opportunities and resources which Europe can no longer match.
A final asset for Asia, of course, is Sheikh Ahmad himself. In his own unique style the Sheikh, also the President of the Association of National Olympic Committees and certainly one of the more influential members of the IOC, manages to find time to speak to everyone. The thing that reverberates most is his overwhelming passion for all things sporting.
Passion and charm will indeed be my abiding memory of the OCA General Assembly. While it was also somewhat bizarre, this was epitomised best of all by the impromptu karaoke performance by HRH Prince Tunku Imran of Malaysia when he took to the stage during the centenary celebrations.
Where else would a royal and eminent official perform a full rendition of songs. most of which were encores, ranging from Hey Jude to Oh When the Saints?
It goes without saying that Asian sport is not perfect and that more works lies ahead, but overall my whistle-stop visit to Manila left a firmly optimistic picture.
It was said during the centenary celebrations that we look forward to "Asia's sporting century." This is in many ways difficult to dispute and, given all the good work being done, it is something that we outside Asia should embrace and seek to emulate rather than fear.
By Nick Butler, reporter for insidethegames.biz