Is 9 months enough for Indonesia to deliver a great Asian Games?

Hendi and Yollanda Primadona Jumpil of Indonesia perform during the Pencak Silat double final at the 29th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Kuala Lumpur on August 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adek BERRY
Hendi and Yollanda Primadona Jumpil of Indonesia perform during the Pencak Silat double final at the 29th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Kuala Lumpur on August 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adek BERRY

Half-finished venues and an air of unpreparedness raise an uncomfortable question for Indonesia: will it be ready for next year’s Asian Games?

With less than nine months to go, earth-movers and cranes dot construction sites and plans for logistics remain hazy, pointing to a frantic build-up to the regional Olympics in August.

Turbulent preparations for major events are nothing new: the 2004 Athens Olympics stadium was only completed weeks before the opening ceremony, and Brazil’s 2014 World Cup went ahead in unfinished venues.

The doomsday scenario remains New Delhi’s 2010 Commonwealth Games, where problems ranged from filthy conditions at the athletes’ village to collapsing infrastructure.

Indonesia had its own problems with the 2011 Southeast Asian Games — which, like the Asian Games, were split between Jakarta and Palembang in South Sumatra — following corruption scandals and a deadly stampede at the football final.

But the Asian Games are on a different scale altogether: 9,500 athletes in 40 different sports, compared to 28 for the last Olympics, and held in two different cities for the first time in the event’s history.

With at least one venue, the velodrome in Jakarta, not expected to be ready until June, chief organiser Erick Thohir admitted the schedule was “a bit tight” for the 30 trillion rupiah ($2.2 billion) Games.

But Thohir, the media tycoon who is president of Inter Milan and owns DC United, pledged that Indonesia will be ready to host its biggest sports event yet from August 18 to September 2.

“Actually we’re doing something that’s impossible but became possible,” he said this week during an official media visit and venue tour.

“We’re still in progress but we will make sure that the (work) is finishing up and we will make everything ready on time,” he added.

– ‘Pray for us’ –

Hosting the Asian Games is an ambitious endeavour for any country, as underlined in 2014 when Vietnam pulled out as hosts of the upcoming tournament, citing concerns over preparations and the heavy financial burden.

Indonesia, facing five years to prepare rather than the usual seven, then opted to bring the Games forward from 2019 to 2018 to avoid a clash with national elections, losing another year.

A change of president in 2014 slowed efforts to push forward the project, as has repeated tinkering with the sporting schedule.

“We hope that this (sporting programme) is not changing any more — hope for us and pray for us,” said an exasperated Harry Warganegara of the Games’ organising committee, INASGOC.

In sleepy South Sumatra, an hour’s flight from Jakarta, large parts of Palembang’s Jakabaring Sport City remain a building site, permeated with the screech of angle-grinders and smoke from bonfires on nearby wasteland.

At the bowling venue, teams of carpenters are laying down chipboard underflooring for the 40 bowling lanes, while piles of bricks and debris are heaped on the dirt forecourt outside.

Nearby, the skeletons of unfinished buildings stand next to the white grandstand at the rowing venue, which will be the “best… in the world”, according to provincial governor Alex Noerdin.

“(The venues are) not ready 100 percent,” admitted the ambitious Noerdin, who also hopes to attract a MotoGP motorbike race to Palembang, and jokes that he even has his eye on the Olympics.

“Some infrastructure is under construction, so apologies for the traffic jams, for so many cars everywhere,” he said.

“But we promise you, six months before the Asian Games Palembang will be the most beautiful city in Indonesia.”

– Toxic river –

At the Palembang athletes’ village, originally built for the 2011 SEA Games, workers are painting curbstones black and white and an unidentified man is asleep in one of the bedrooms.

Meanwhile the Jakarta athletes’ village, seven tower blocks housing 5,400 small apartments, is nearing completion but backs on to a foul-smelling, toxic black river.

The target seems to be that Indonesia will be more or less ready for the Games, and that they will be held without too many of the organisational hitches that often plague major events.

But for many Indonesians, holding the competition at all is already a triumph for a country which has weathered severe difficulties since independence in 1945 to become one of the world’s biggest emerging economies.

“Not only do we want to host something for the international audience, but also we want to build something for the people of Indonesia. I think that’s something that’s important for Indonesia,” said Thohir.

“We want to show Indonesia has really changed over the past 50 years… the image we want to show is the transformation of Indonesia.”

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