— Published 25 September 2023

In Hangzhou, the Asian Games shape the future

Thomas Bach likes to say it when asked: next year, Paris 2024 will mark a “new era” for the Olympic movement. The IOC President reiterated this again at the end of last week, in an interview with the Chinese agency Xinhua on the sidelines of the Asian Games in Hangzhou: the next Summer Games will be the most sustainable and inclusive in history. The first Parity Games. The first edition marked by the IOC’s Agenda 2020+5.

In the meantime, as Thomas Bach noted on each of his visits to the Asian Games 2023 (September 23 to October 8): 10 months almost to the day before Paris 2024, the present is being written in Hangzhou. And perhaps even more than next year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in France, it foreshadows the future of major international sporting events.

A future where high technology will serve sustainability. A future in which digital technology will permeate every aspect of the organization. A future, finally, where sport is not only human, but also takes on an electronic dimension.

Thomas Bach summed it up after the opening ceremony on Saturday, September 23 at Hangzhou Stadium, an ultramodern lotus-shaped stadium seating 80,000: the evening proved to be “a perfect combination of digital innovation and human grace.”

Best example: the lighting of the flame. The Chinese wanted it to be twofold, with a traditional, old-fashioned version and a more modernist model. The “physical” torch was lit by Chinese Olympic swimming champion Wang Shun. The digital version (pictured above) completed an unprecedented digital relay, with over 100 million people carrying the flame on the official platform since June 15.

The same was true of the late-night fireworks display over the stadium. It was entirely digital. The first of its kind for an international multisport event.

Thomas Bach seemed to appreciate this. “These Asian Games will set new standards, commented the German leader. The organization set up in Hangzhou takes advantage of China’s digital expertise. It will be sustainable, with an emphasis on carbon footprint reduction and comprehensive waste management.”

A detail that is anything but anecdotal: Hangzhou is home to the global headquarters of the Alibaba Group, which is also a member of the IOC’s TOP global marketing program.

The Chinese make no secret of the fact: the 2023 Asian Games have been conceived and prepared as a showcase for China’s advances in high-tech and artificial intelligence. In the three official villages, dedicated to athletes, media and technical officials, robots provide surveillance, security and entertainment. They also offer banking services, in the image of a city where “paper” money has all but disappeared.

In terms of transport, the organizers have planned a system of driverless minibuses to link up with the nearby city of Shaoxing, site of the baseball and softball tournaments.

The latest trend: e-sports. Voluntarily avant-garde in a field where the IOC is treading with some caution, the Asian Games opened the door to eSports five years ago. After a notable, albeit demonstrative, debut in Jakarta in 2018, virtual disciplines are medal sports for the first time this year in Hangzhou.

The e-competition program is spread over nine days. It will distribute seven Asian titles, including two on mobile games.

Close observers: the organizers of the next Asian Games, scheduled for 2026 in Nagoya and Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. Hideaki Omura, Governor of Aichi, was in Hangzhou at the weekend. He pushed open the door of the eSport complex, built especially for the event. “eSport will also be an official event in 2026, he confirmed, quoted by Kyodo News. We will try to promote it in the same way as our Chinese colleagues.

The budget for the 2023 Asian Games? A mystery. The Chinese organizers have never put forward the slightest figure. But the local authorities in Hangzhou have admitted to spending lavishly on transport, infrastructure and accommodation. One figure is circulating: 200 billion yuan. Thirty billion dollars. Definitely less trendy.