Even those who are absolute in their indifference to sport will not fail to notice that 2016 is an Olympic year. As the opening ceremony looms, the noise emanating from Rio will be hard to ignore. In contrast, Regional Games can easily be overlooked.
As the self-declared sovereign body of global sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) oversees 206 National Olympic Committees (NOC) spread across five continents. The IOC also recognises International Sports Federations (such as the UCI) that conform to the Olympic Charter.
Between the IOC and the NOC’s sits the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) which is divided into five continental associations: the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA), Pan American Sports Organization (PASO), European Olympic Committee (EOC), and Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC).
Conceptually, the relationship these continental Olympic associations have to NOC’s in their region is similar to the relationship between the UCI’s Continental Confederations and their respective National Cycling Federations – the obvious difference being the Olympic associations cover all sports.
In addition to acting as an NOC exchange platform of sorts, the continental Olympic bodies also oversee the running of Regional Games.
Within its continental jurisdiction, the Kuwait-based Olympic Council of Asia – which describes itself as “the apex sports body controlling the (sic) sports in Asia” – officiates over 45 NOC’s and six Games.
For administration purposes, OCA’s territory is split further into five zones, namely: Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and West Asia. Each zone is represented by its own governing body. It is within these zones (or Sub-regions) that Regional Games take place.
Most recently held in Incheon (South Korea) in 2014, the quadrennial Asian Games is the largest multi-sport event governed by the OCA. Technically-speaking, it is the only Regional Games in Asia as all others are confined to OCA Sub-regions (confusingly, the OCA does not seem to make that distinction itself, though the IOC does).
The inaugural Asian games (in New Delhi) were notable for creating an inerasably imperfect incremental timeline – they were scheduled to be held in 1950, but delayed until 1951 (recalibration came with the 1954 Games in Manila) – and, far more importantly, resurrecting the Far Eastern Championship Games which had from 1913 until 1934 served as Asia’s pre-eminent multi-sport gathering.
Just as road cycling belonged to a small clutch of sporting disciplines in the inaugural modern era Summer Olympics of 1896, it was also one of only eight sporting disciplines at the 1951 Asian Games. Japan’s Tomioka Kihei won the 180km road race in a remarkably precise 5.22:235, ahead of two compatriots.
Sadly, the organisers of the 1954 Asian Games did not include road cycling (or any cycling event) on the schedule, but it has featured on every other occasion since – not quite the perfect attendance record it has enjoyed at the Summer Olympics.
Hosting an event which today involves 36 disciplines and participants from 45 nations doesn’t come cheap. Guangzhou’s mayor revealed the city forked out more than USD18Bn to host the 2010 Asian Games; creating a benchmark which made Incheon’s comparatively meagre USD2Bn spend for the 2014 event appear entirely defensible.
Though the 2018 Asian Games were initially awarded to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital was forced to withdraw, citing economic issues. The OCA subsequently awarded the Games to Jakarta (with South Sumatran provincial capital Palembang a joint host) but there has been growing unease within local media about Indonesia’s preparedness to host the event.
SOUTHEAST ASIAN GAMES
First held in Thailand in 1959, the South East Asia Peninsular Games (as they were then known) was designed to be the sporty filling in an Olympic-Asian Games sandwich; its biennial roster meant it would always fall neatly between the two events, but never in the same year.
Credit for the invention of the SEAP Games has been attributed to Luang Sukhum Nayapradit, then Vice-President of Thailand’s National Olympic Committee. His rationale, as reported by the now-defunct Singapore Free Press in June 1958, was two-pronged; athletic development and promotion of closer ties between neighbouring countries:
“As you know, our standards of sports are not high and we would like to build our athletes so they can compete in Asian Games and the Olympics,” Luang is quoted as saying. “In the Olympics, we are hopeless. In the Asian Games, we win just a small percentage of the awards.” The contests would be “a sort of family Olympics.”
Luang proposed Siam (Thailand), Burma (now Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Malaya (Malaysia) and South Vietnam (now Vietnam) would be the first nations to compete in the event which would feature 11 sports including cycling.
Fearing violent spillover from Thais harbouring anti-Cambodian sentiment in relation to border disputes, Cambodia pulled its athletes from competition a few weeks before the games. Singapore, though not a part of the Indochinese Peninsula community that Luang originally framed ‘his’ event around, was able to take its place.
It’s interesting to note that Malaysia was unable to send a cycling contingent to the inaugural SEAP Games, as it was not affiliated to the UCI – and hence not recognised by the IOC – until March 1960. It’s hard to explain then how a cyclist from Thailand won the road race (held on 14 December 1959) when the Thai Amateur Cycling Association (now the Thai Cycling Association) was only established four days later on 18 December 1959…
Today, the SEA Games is overseen by the Southeast Asian Games Federation (SAGF) with assistance from the OCA and IOC. Alongside the six original NOC’s of Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam are Singapore (added in 1965 after its expulsion from Malaysia), Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines (all joining in 1977) and East Timor (2003).
The 28th SEA Games, held in Singapore last year, comprised 35 sporting disciplines. In cycling, Malaysia’s Mohd Hariff Saleh won the Elite Men’s Road Race while Robin Manulang of Indonesia won the Elite Men’s ITT. Both men ride for UCI Continental teams in their home countries.
SOUTH ASIAN GAMES
Not to be outdone by their southeastern neighbours, the nations of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also started their own regional games.
The catalyst was reportedly an informal meeting between NOC delegates from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka on the sidelines of the 1981 IOC Congress in Germany. A backdrop to this discussion was the imminent formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC); it made sense that a sporting bloc would follow a economic and political one. The South Asian Sports Council (SASC) was formed to provide governance and oversight of the event.
Kathmandu hosted the first South Asian Federation Games (SAF) in 1984, on a lean program of athletics, boxing, football, swimming and wrestling. By the mid-1990’s, the event’s rotation moved from biennial to quadrennial – or as close as possible to it – due to geopolitical turmoil and natural disasters that continue to rattle the region today.
The 2001 Games, originally scheduled to be held in Islamabad, Pakistan, were delayed until 2004 due to ongoing fallout from the 11 September 2001 terrorists attacks in the US. Colombo had to postpone its hosting of the 2005 Games after the region was devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
Road cycling was introduced in 2006, by which time SAF had been renamed to South Asian Games (SAG) and Afghanistan had joined SASC as the eight and final NOC.
At time of writing, the northeastern Indian city of Guwahati is hosting the 12th South Asian Games in Guwahati.
EAST ASIAN GAMES
Administered by the East Asian Games Association, this short-lived event arguably housed the most developed athletic talent of all Sub-regional Games – at least in the sport of cycling.
Shanghai hosted the first quadrennial East Asian Games (EAG) in 1993. Competing alongside the host country were Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, South Korea, North Korea and Taiwan. The Micronesian island of Guam became the ninth member nation added ahead of the 1997 Games held in the port city of Busan, South Korea.
Cycling was not introduced until 2009, when the EAG were held in Hong Kong (above). Local boy Tang Wang Yip won the Elite Men’s Road Race, ahead of Ronald Yeung and Kwok Ho Ting. Japan was the convincing winner of the Team Time Trial.
Taiwan’s Feng Chun Kai won the next Elite Men’s Road Race at the 2013 EAG in Tianjin, China. Though still fiercely contested, the abrupt 77.6km circuit race betrayed an air of finality; the East Asian Games Association had decided a year earlier to drop the event, instead “transforming” it into the East Asian Youth Games (scheduled to be held in Taichung, 2019).
CENTRAL ASIAN GAMES
Asia’s smallest cohort of Sub-regional NOC’s -Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – contested the first Central Asian Games in Uzbekistan, 1995 (Uzbekistan’s Cycling Federation became a UCI NCF in the same year). Taiwan made a one-off appearance in 1999.
Road cycling was a fixture of the biennial event until its last appearance in 2005.
WEST ASIAN GAMES
Held on only three occasions, the West Asian Games is the only Sub-regional Games in Asia not to include cycling in its program.
Several NOC’s that competed at the Central Asian Games also appeared in each of the quadrennial WAG which was first held in Tehran, 1997. Competing nations were Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Qatar, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Yemen.
Women were not allowed to compete at WAG until 2005 – also the most recent edition of this Sub-regional Games. It was reported in May 2015 that Tehran would once again host the West Asian Games in 2016.
LIST OF REGIONAL AND SUBREGIONAL GAMES IN ASIA