Incheon welcomes best of Asia

Incheon welcomes best of Asia
The Thai delegation unfurls the national flag at the athlete.

INCHEON, South Korea - The 17th Asian Games opens in South Korea today, with the hosts looking to end a disappointing sporting year on a high and China hoping to maintain its recent dominance of the event.

After tonight's opening ceremony, around 14,000 athletes from 45 countries will compete in 36 sports for 439 medals in the continent's largest sports extravaganza under the slogan "Diversity Shines Here".

Incheon, which defeated Delhi in the race to host the Games, becomes the third South Korean city after Seoul (1986) and Busan (2002) to host the quadrennial sports showcase.

With just hours to go before the opening ceremony, all roads led to Incheon yesterday, resulting in traffic snarls, busy stadiums and crowds of tourists and Games participants here, there and everywhere.

The grand opening ceremony will reach an estimated 4.5 billion viewers across the continent for 16 days.

The main stadium stood ready and resplendent yesterday, decked in beautiful decorations, colourful flowers and greenery. Security was on full alert, with several checkpoints surrounding the stadium.

Inside, instead of conducting the usual dress rehearsal for the opening ceremony, the organisers were trying to put things in an order in a last-ditch attempt to make sure the launch runs smoothly.

Athletes and tourists touched down in large numbers at Incheon International Airport yesterday, making it one of the busiest days in the history of the city.

As athletes and officials lined up in front of the accreditation centre at the airport, hundreds more made several long queues at Customs.

Outside the airport, a crowd of athletes were waiting patiently for shuttle buses, while hundreds more were hauling their luggage towards transport.

The athletes were taken directly to the athletes' village, while media representatives were whisked to the media village and hotels.

Thailand has sent a strong delegation of 780 athletes and officials, including HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, who is part of the equestrian squad.

The Princess will participate in the dressage event with her horse Prince Charming.

The Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) has targeted 13 to 15 gold medals while the Olympic Committee of Thailand Secretary-General Maj-General Charouck Arirachakaran has a more cautious estimate of just 10 golds - one less than the Thai haul in Guangzhou, China, four years ago.

Thailand are hoping for a clean sweep of four golds in sepak takraw, where Thais traditionally dominate.

Thai athletes are also tipped to capture gold medals in track and field, taekwondo, sailing, boxing, weightlifting, women's volleyball and shooting.

Today's opening ceremony will see goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan carry the national flag to lead the Thai delegation into the stadium. The hunt for gold starts at the shooting range tomorrow, the first day of competition.

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