Artist perform ahead of the opening ceremony of the 19th...

Artist perform ahead of the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko

HANGZHOU, China — The opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Saturday in China offered all the staples of a major international sports event.

Dignitaries greeted General Secretary Xi Jinping, fans packed the 80,000-seat Olympic Sports Center Stadium in Hangzhou to capacity, and many of the 12,417 participants from 45 nations and territories paraded to officially open the two-week show.

By comparison, next year's Paris Olympics will field about 10,500 competitors.

One big thing, however, was missing: real fireworks, the exploding kind that smell of power and burnt fuses. Instead, the high-tech games — billed of course as “green games” — offered electronic flash, 3D animations and a virtual torchbearer.

Xi was greeted by wild cheers when he appeared, and fans were handed LED star lights, adding sparkle to the stands when the lights dimmed and eight well-polished soldiers arrived carrying the national flag above their heads.

The loudest cheers were for the Chinese delegation, but Taiwan, North Korea and Hong Kong were also welcomed warmly. There were no audible jeers for any delegation.

Delayed for a year by the pandemic, the Asian Games are China's largest sports event since the country scrapped its zero-COVID-19 policy early in the year.

Performers wait for the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian...

Performers wait for the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Credit: AP/Vincent Thian

Among the dignitaries on hand were Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who left behind his war-torn country, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, and King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia.

Bach is in a political tussle over the governance of the Olympic Council of Asia and is also believed to be lobbying Xi against supporting any breakaway multi-sport games sought by Russian President Vladimir Putin with Russia likely being banned next year in Paris.

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were held in a COVID-19 bubble. The 2008 Summer Olympics marked China's rise as a world power. These games serve as a promotional event for Hangzhou, the eastern metropolis of 8 million that seeks a larger stage, partly lost in the shadow on nearby Shanghai.

“Through the window of Hangzhou Asian Games, people around the world will see a trustable, loveable, and respectable China in its new era,” Xinhua, the official news agency, said in an editorial, echoing Xi’s call to tell China's story.

A volunteer waves a flag ahead of the opening ceremony...

A volunteer waves a flag ahead of the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko

The sluggish economy and high youth unemployment have some residents grumbling that the money could be better spent, prompting city officials to reassure the public that it would be a “frugal” event.

Revenues from donations and the private sector were estimated to reach hundreds of millions of dollars by March, while the expenditures were estimated to have exceeded $30 billion as the city built 56 sports facilities, 30 training sites, five villages for athletes as well as major infrastructure investments.

However, the city’s residents also are aware that the infrastructure upgrades were only possible because of the games and, along with the city government, have welcomed the games to justify the spending.

The giant numbers are due to the staggering array of events with many regional specialties, sports, and games you won't see at the Olympics. And there’s also cricket, which appears headed to the Olympics as soon as 2028 in Los Angeles, and certainly for 2032 in Brisbane, Australia.

The regional fare includes dragon boat racing, sepaktakraw — sometimes called “kick volleyball" — wushu, a Chinese martial art, and kabaddi, a popular contact sport on the Indian subcontinent.

Add to this a long list of what organizers call “mind sports” from bridge to chess to xiangqi (Chinese chess) to esports. Esports figure to be a giant hit after being a demonstration sport in 2018.

Of course, there are the old standbys seen in every Olympics like track and field, swimming, or volleyball. Nine sports will offer qualification spots for the Olympics — archery, artistic swimming, boxing, breaking, hockey, modern pentathlon, sailing, tennis, and water polo.

Many of the 481 events offer a chance for smaller delegations to win medals, which is often impossible at the Olympics. China won almost 300 medals in the Asian Games five years ago and is sure to dominate again followed by Japan and South Korea.

North Korea is on hand, so are female athletes representing Afghanistan, and Taiwan — the democratic island claimed by China as a breakaway province — always fields a strong team.

The Afghan team arrived, including women, and marching under the non-Taliban flag.

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Didi Tang contributed to this report from Washington.

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