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.

David Gray/Reuters
China's Liu Hong crosses the finish line to win the women's 20 km walk at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China on Nov. 23.

The Asian Games that wrapped up Saturday in Guangzhou, China, drew 9,700 competitors – showcasing the host country's logistical finesse, as well as its stellar athletes. In particular, hurdler Liu Xiang redeemed his injury-marred appearance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a gold medal in Guangzhou.

But while its athletes basked in victory, China enjoyed little of the global attention it garnered as the stunning host of the Olympic Games two years ago. Instead, it was India – who just a month before hosted the Commonwealth Games – who found itself in the spotlight.

The Commonwealth Games represented modern India’s debut on the global stage. The country had never hosted such a large international event, and New Delhi approached the opportunity as a chance to show off its rapidly growing economy.

But there are other reasons, too, that explain why the Commonwealth Games overshadowed China's show – even though the Asian games are described as one of the largest multi-sport event after the Olympic Games.

While China's ability to pull off meticulous orchestration of everything from an incredible opening ceremony to the construction of new venues was not much in doubt, India's public sector is notorious for missing deadlines. This, together with a threat of violence at the Commonwealth Games, gave the press – uncensored, mind you, in India – plenty to delve into.

East vs. West

The presence of athletes from rich, English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom ensured heavy coverage in the influential press from those countries. Asian nations have few news organizations that are globally followed, partly because they are not primarily published in the lingua franca of English.

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).

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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