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Macau to raise curtain on East Asian Games

More than just medals on the line at Chinese port city

By Unus Alladin

Wushu, demonstrated here in 2002, will be among the competitions at the East Asian Games.



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MACAU, China (CNN) -- Supporters call it the biggest event in Macau in the nearly 500 years since Portuguese settlers first moved into the enclave on the southeast coastline of China.

And the numbers surrounding the 2005 East Asian Games would seem to support that claim. Almost 2,000 athletes and 800 officials will converge on this port city to take part in the fourth edition of the games, to be held from October 29 to November 6.

After nine years of hard work, massive construction of the various venues and a budget that seemed to have been stretched to the limit, Macau's sports community says it is ready to open its doors to stage one of the most important sporting events in the region.

About 500,000 visitors -- mainly from mainland China -- are expected to flock to Macau to watch the events.

"We're ready to host the East Asian Games, and after years of hard work and preparation, we believe we will host a games people will remember," declared Manuel Silverio, chairman of the East Asian Games organizing committee in Macau.

What Macau is hosting is considered possibly the third most important multi-sports event in Asia, after the Olympics and the Asian Games. Teams from nine countries or regions are taking part in the competition. The big three -- China, Japan and South Korea -- will be joined by North Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Mongolia, Taiwan and Guam.

What makes the East Asian Games distinctive from the much larger Asian Games is that the smaller teams such as Mongolia and Guam have a chance of winning medals.

Additionally, many of the events are unique to the East Asian Games. Competition will be held in events such as "dance sport" and "dragon boat racing," which are not medal sports at either the larger Asian Games, or the Olympics.

The East Asian Games will be completed in almost half the time -- nine days -- than the two-plus weeks needed for the Asian Games and the Olympics, making it less grueling for athletes, spectators and journalists.

State-of-the-art facilities
Macau's Olympic Aquatic Center seats 1,500 and boasts a diamond-vision screen.

Organizers have all but completed building the stadiums and venues for the 17 sports and 234 events, with 11 venues having been built from scratch.

Finishing touches were being applied on some of the venues in September, but organizers were confident all facilities would be ready by mid-October.

The Macau Dome will be the center piece. Costing more than 600 million patacas ($75 million), the dome is the most modern and technically advanced structure in Macau since the Macau Tower, the tallest structure in the city.

The 8,000-seat Macau Dome is a three-story multipurpose complex with two separate indoor pavilions. The structure will host the closing ceremonies for the games and a number of sporting activities, including 10-pin bowling, athletics and gymnastics.

Another impressive facility is the new Olympic Aquatic Center, with a seating capacity of 1,500. The center boasts a diamond-vision screen, a 10-lane Olympic size pool and a fully adjustable diving pool measuring 25 meters by 25 meters.

All 11 venues are close to each other -- a big advantage for the spectators who want to see different competitions, and the journalists expected to cover the event.

A global stage
The rise of casinos in Macau is indicative of the booming economy in the territory.

Local authorities say the timing of these East Asian Games is crucial for Macau, which became a Special Administrative Region after the Portuguese handover to China in 1999.

Macau, with a population of 440,000, is considered a small city by Asian standards. It has long been known as a center for seedy entertainment and casinos.

But the city has witnessed an economic boom, expressed not only in the growth of upscale casinos, but in the real estate market, as well.

The East Asian Games, its boosters say, will provide a chance to showcase Macau on an international stage. Such hopes are crucial for a city that has traditionally been in the shadow of nearby Hong Kong.

Macau sports officials quickly point out that by the time Hong Kong stages the next East Asian Games in 2009, Macau will have hosted three multi-sports events -- this year's East Asian Games; the inaugural Games of the Association of the Portuguese Speaking Olympic Committees in 2006; and the second Indoor Asian Games in 2007.

Macau has grown in stature during the past few years and apart from the annual motor-racing Grand Prix, which celebrates its 52nd anniversary in November, the city has hosted the annual Macau international marathon, the Macau Golf Open and other world class tournaments.

Undeterred by the price tag

The scenic Sai Van Bridge is one of three bridgeways connecting Macau to the island of Taipa.

The effort to bring the 2005 East Asian Games to Macau has come at a cost.

A few years ago the Games' budget was estimated to be around 2 billion patacas (around $250 million), but latest estimates put that figure closer to 5 billion patacas ($625 million).

The Macau government has never revealed its budget, probably due to the escalating costs of staging the event. No one has questioned the government for its growing expenditure even though its budget has ballooned to more than twice its original estimates.

Still, local authorities say the cost of the East Asian Games can be recouped from taxes on the gambling industry.

Macau's residents also have shown their enthusiasm to the massive project, too. More than 8,000 people have committed themselves to work at the games, although organizers are confident the number of volunteers will grow to 12,000 once the games begin.

What may be most amazing is that Macau is even hosting the games.

The city never participated in the Olympic Games before its handover to China in 1999. It is not an IOC member, even though nearby Hong Kong, which the British turned over to China in 1997, has been an Olympic member since 1952.

But that doesn't deter Macau sporting boosters such as Silverio.

"Our goal is to become an IOC member. This is our next goal," Silverio said.

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