INCHEON: The Asian Games is just starting in Incheon, but the prospect of empty stadiums for the next two weeks and high debt for many years is already making the continent’s biggest sporting event feel unloved.
The mayor of South Korea’s third city admitted on the eve of Friday’s opening ceremony — featuring classical pianist Lang Lang and Korean pop stars such as Psy — that Incheon is in trouble because of the cost of the Games.
Incheon inhabitants are not convinced that the event, for which 17 new venues have been built for the sporting stars from across Asia, is worth it. There is no queue of countries at the Olympic Council of Asia to put on future Asiads, which means hosting nearly 10,000 athletes and thousands of coaches, officials and journalists.
There were fewer than 100 people in the Goyang Stadium when Jordan’s football team beat United Arab Emirates, silver medalists in the Asian Games four years ago, on Thursday night. Thousands of tickets remained on sale for Friday’s glittering opening extravaganza in a 62,000 capacity stadium.
Incheon officials acknowledged this week that barely 18 percent of tickets have been sold for the Games, which run until October 4.
The city has since decided only to report ticket receipts rather than numbers sold. A city spokeswoman, Yoo Ji-Hyun, said Thursday that overall the Games had reached 52 percent of its 35 billion won ($335 million) target.
The opening ceremony had reached 66 percent of its financial target and sports events had risen above 60 percent, but the closing ceremony was still at about 20 percent.
Yoo acknowledged that the number of seats sold was much lower, but insisted that interest is growing and there is a “visible rise in ticket sales”.
Mayor Yoo Jeong-Bok acknowledged the financial pain. He said North Korea’s decision to withdraw its female cheerleaders — secretly widely admired in the South, despite the decades of frosty rivalry — had been a blow.
“The North Korean cheerleaders would have contributed much to our show and also to improving relations between the two Koreas,” Yoo told the Yonhap national news agency.
“It’s true our financial burden has increased due to the Asian Games. However I believe it will raise the brand value of our city” and attract foreign investors, he added.
The Games have cost nearly $2 billion, and Incheon is now South Korea’s most indebted city. There are new tower blocks, a metro line, and sparkling sports facilities. Inhabitants say, however, there is little sign of the 200,000 visitors that organisers have been counting on.
Park Song-Moo, 43, an Incheon office worker, said: “Big sporting events do not attract public attention any more”.
While the 1988 Seoul Olympics were widely hailed, Park said times have changed and spectators are more difficult to find.
“Our biggest concern is the economy. Young people have new interests in leisure and personal activities like the Internet, not sports. The highly digitalised society is another reason. People can watch the Games real-time on their smartphones without going to the stadiums,” he said.
Housewife Park Sung-Ae said she and friends had wanted tickets for events featuring popular South Korean sports stars, but none were left.
“Public interest in the Asian Games is not so strong, and people are not willing to spend money on unpopular sports. We are more concerned about our budgets. Some people think South Korea should not waste taxpayers’ money on costly international events any more because they will result in increased taxes.”
Lee Jung-Ae, a 33-year-old housewife, was more upbeat. “The Asian Games will help our country and city to build their image. I also believe it will help reactivate our regional economy,” she said.
Much has been made of the $32 billion in debt left after the Chinese city of Guangzhou staged the Games four years ago.
And the Olympic Council of Asia general assembly is expected to confirm on Saturday that Indonesia will hold the 2018 Games after Vietnam’s recent withdrawal because of the high cost. No-one else was ready to stand in.