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Asian Games in China were a big deal. Why Westerners didn't hear much about them.

Though far more athletes competed at the Asian Games, India's Commonwealth Games were seen as an international debut similar to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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Additionally, more entities sent athletes to New Delhi than Guangzhou. The Commonwealth Games involved 71 countries and dependencies, while the Asian Games brought together 45 countries. That said, more athletes overall competed in China (some 9,700) than in India (some 6,000).

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Uncertainty around India’s ability to deliver

The Commonwealth Games proved to be an irresistible media story precisely because the outcome was unclear: Could India really pull this off?

China does planning, construction, and deadlines. India’s public sector struggles with all of those things. In particular, the continual missing of deadlines added high-wire tension to India’s games. The event itself became one dramatic race to the finish-line.

In the final days before Delhi’s opening ceremony, a pedestrian footbridge to one of the main venues collapsed and the athlete village remained incomplete and filthy. This prompted the military to step in and officials to crack heads, all making for great stories.

With expectations set very low, India dazzled the international press with its exuberant and well-executed opening ceremony, providing a surprise happy ending.

With India, a frisson of violence

Islamic extremists had threatened to mess with India’s games, adding an element of danger. And the terrorist threat appeared more serious after a couple of foreign tourists were shot in Delhi.

At the same time, India’s most contentious inter-religious dispute – the Babri Mosque – threatened to erupt into riots directly before the games. Six decades of legal wrangling came to head in the days before the games with the release of a court verdict over whether Muslims or Hindus owned a contested piece of religious ground. A Solomonic decision that called for dividing the land – plus the possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court – averted catastrophe on the eve of the games.

India’s media dug up dirt; China is censored

India’s vibrant free press delighted in digging up corruption scandals and confronting officials with their missed deadlines and blown budgets. That gave international media a lot of ready material and a reason to focus more closely on the event.

China’s tightly guarded media, meanwhile, does not have the investigative ability to pry loose nearly as much malfeasance and incompetence. That gave the international media much more ready material to work with in Delhi than Guangzhou.


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