National Games grand as Olympics. But are they worth the expense?
Those people in Hong Kong and around the world who were dazzled by the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics last year should have been equally in awe of the grand opening ceremony of the 11th National Games in Jinan, Shandong province, on Friday night.
But it is a pity that most of them probably missed it. Although it was broadcast live on the mainland, it was barely mentioned by overseas media, let alone covered live.
The opening ceremony was billed as a match for the splendour of the Beijing Olympics, and in many ways it was. It was a visual extravaganza of special effects and technical brilliance.
Two huge screens 50 metres in diameter formed a giant bowl and hung over the centre of the brand-new 60,000-seat stadium.
Organisers employed 48 of the world's most expensive Barco projectors to provide images as 12,000 actors performed on the court of 20,000 square metres, all of which were covered with lights for special effects.
A total of 98 high wires were strung across the stadium to enable acrobatics, compared with only eight used for the Beijing Olympics.
Directors have boasted to the official media that the National Games' grandeur matched that of the Beijing Olympics and was sure to surpass that of the Olympics held by the other countries, with a brilliant combination of dazzling light, music and dance.
With President Hu Jintao, accompanied by International Olympic Committee president Dr Jacques Rogge, present to officiate at the opening ceremony, the organisers left nothing to chance.
Moreover, a successful staging of the show was meant to be a perfect gift for the country's 60th birthday, as well as marking the 50th anniversary of the National Games, mainland sports officials said.
Amid the high-wire excitement, however, several important and valid questions about the Games remain unanswered.
First, the costs. The opening ceremony of the National Games was rumoured to have originated from a backup plan for the Beijing Olympics, and there is little doubt that it cost several hundred million yuan.
Take an example. The directors of the show boasted that the 48 Barco projectors were the world's most advanced and there were only 70 available in the whole world. A simple Google search reveals that top-end Barco projectors cost about 1.6 million yuan (HK$1.8 million) each.
Should the organisers throw such money into a show of less than two hours at a time when the country is trying to emerge from the shadows of the global financial crisis amid rising unemployment? Wouldn't it be better if the money were spent on education or medical care?
A more important question hangs over the purpose and the future of the National Games. Mainland sports officials have clamed that the quadrennial Games, the country's top national-level sports event, were aimed at getting more of its 1.3 billion people involved in sport. The theme of this year's event is 'Harmonious China and People's Games'.
But the people's Games they were not. According to state media, sports authorities have, since the 6th National Games in Guangdong in 1987, shifted the focus of the event to spotting and selecting athletes for the Olympics.
As the National Games happen to occur one year after the Olympics, they are seen as an important testing ground for the London Olympics in 2012.
'Preparing for the next Olympics is a big challenge for us,' Liu Peng , the sports minister, said last week. 'We must make full use of these Games to build the foundation for London.'
Organisers proudly claimed that the National Games would be the largest multi-sport event in the world, attracting 15,133 athletes from 46 teams competing in 362 events in 33 sports, including all 28 sports in Summer Olympics, four winter sports and wushu, or traditional Chinese martial arts.
But the weird thing about the Games is that even before the opening ceremony, the finals of 104 events from the winter sports and some of the most popular other sports, such as table tennis, gymnastics and diving, had already concluded.
Since those summer events involve most of the mainland's Olympic gold medallists, this means there is little suspense or excitement left for mainland spectators during the 13-day Games.
Sports officials have defended the arrangement, saying that the mainland's top athletes needed to finish early because the National Games clash with several other top world events, including the World Gymnastics Championships in London, which ended yesterday.
To many mainlanders, this implies that the National Games were less important and less relevant, and this decision can hardly attract as many mainlanders as possible to watch the event as was intended.
Even the People's Daily last week ran a commentary on its sports page questioning officials' wisdom for spending so much money and resources on the Games, when many important events had already concluded before the Games officially opened.
Even more important, the National Games have long been a fierce battleground for local sports officials to showcase achievements of areas under their jurisdictions because their careers largely depend on them. So it is not hard to imagine that those officials have tried everything possible to boost their own medal tallies, leading to rampant match-fixing and other fraud in previous Games.
Even before this year's Games started, allegations over result-rigging flew thick and fast, with one judge publicly alleging that winners for the diving event were decided before the competition. Top mainland sports officials have vehemently denied the accusation, but many mainlanders have seen and heard enough.
Maybe it is time to consider whether the Games should be downsized or even cancelled, with the money saved better used on those activities that can really help improve the ordinary mainlander's physique, the chief mission of the National Games.