Too much to bear
There is a perceptible buzz in the air. I noticed it as I was weaving through shoppers at Telford Gardens mall in Kowloon Bay the other day. It was also apparent as I snaked around dinner-time crowds in Causeway Bay. I assumed it was because Hong Kong is just weeks away from hosting the region's most important sporting event, the East Asian Games. But, no, the excitement was not about so momentous an occasion, but the fact that Christmas decorations were being put up.
There were 'oohs' and 'aahs' at Telford Gardens: dozens of teddy bears, in male and female pairs, have been placed throughout the mall. They are cutely dressed in costumes representing the world's countries. I have no idea what bears have to do with Christmas, but they are certainly eye-catching.
That cannot be said of the fluffy mascots for the Games, Dony and Ami. I am not sure what variety or breed of creature they are meant to be. Nor do the fireworks logo and 'Be The Legend' slogan inspire me.
A lack of pleasing motifs and stirring words aside, though, I cannot fathom why people are crowding to look at bears, while paying scant attention to the sight of an athlete with a lit torch pounding the streets to promote a once-every-four-years event that may not come to our city again during our lifetimes.
The Games begin on December 5 and end eight days later. There are 262 events across 23 sports. Hong Kong hosted the equestrian events of the Beijing Olympics last year, but considerably more sports people will be drawn by next month's occasion. Never before has our city brought together so many athletes - there will be about 3,000 from nine countries or regions, excluding the thousands of locals who will participate in exhibition matches, mini-games and side competitions.
Herewith, a confession: I have not been gripped by East Asian Games fever. I wrote about the Games in February in response to official fears that residents would pay little heed to them. They are, after all, not a patch on their better-known big brother, the Asian Games. This column, in fact, was initially supposed to pertain to Rio de Janeiro's hosting of the Olympics in 2016 and the Fifa World Cup in South Africa next year - until it occurred to me that Hong Kong had a sporting event of its own looming.
There is concern in Brazil and South Africa that their countries are ill-prepared to host their respective events. A nationwide power failure in Brazil last week focused international attention on the nation's infrastructure shortcomings. The killing by South African police of a three-year-old boy has gained notoriety. Law-enforcement officers, given shoot-to-kill orders by a government worried that it will not be able to bring rampant violent crime under control in time for the World Cup in June, wrongly believed the child had been carrying a dangerous weapon as he sat in the back of a car.
Major sporting and cultural events give governments reason to fast-track projects. Generally, they comprise urban transformations in the host city which, if properly carried out, can lead to regional development. This was the case with the Seoul summer Olympics in 1988; an enlarged international airport, three subway lines and 47 extensions of bus routes expanded the city, and the global attention spurred South Korean industrial and technological development. The nation emerged on the global stage from years of dictatorship with a bright, new image.
The East Asian Games are insignificant next to the Olympics and World Cup. They could, nonetheless, have been used by the government to promote sport and fitness. World-class sporting facilities could have been built. Instead, poor planning and promotion has led to widespread disinterest and ignorance.
To say a golden opportunity has been missed is an understatement. With 18 days before the opening ceremony, now is too late to spread Games fever. There can be no more sad indictment than the talk of the town being about Christmas light shows and teddy bears rather than sports and athletes.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post