Vietnam has won its bid to host the Asian Games in 2019.
On November 8, the Olympic Council of Asia announced that Hanoi has been selected to host the 18th ASIAD, winning the nod of delegates at its 31st General Assembly in Macau. The event, with 36 sports, is expected to take place for 16 days in late November 2019.
The announcement should have sparked off celebrations, because it was no mean achievement
by a nation which cannot be regarded as a sporting power in the region.
Vietnam's best performance at Asia's main quadrennial sports event, also known as the ASIAD, was four gold medals and a ranking of 15th in 2002.
Instead of celebrations, however, the winning bid has raised hackles from experts and residents who are concerned it will inflict hug losses and make a bad economic situation worse.
"Is it necessary to spend a large amount of money for the 18th ASIAD when we have many priority problems to solve?" reader Pham Phu Hai asked, writing to Vietweek.
"The economic downturn persists and residents' life is difficult. Many people have to struggle for meals. Many enterprises have become bankrupt and people are unemployed," he said.
Hanoi won the vote over Surabaya of Indonesia in a two-city race after Dubai reportedly pulled out at last minute saying it wanted to focus on future bids.
Earlier, four other potential bidders, including Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi and Hong Kong had withdrawn, mostly for financial reasons.
Experts say Vietnam should have delayed organizing such a big event to avoid taking on an economic burden.
"Vietnam surely would have had no chance [to win the bid] in past years but it won easily under the current situation," said Nguyen Hong Minh, former director of the high sports achievement department under the General Department of Physical Training and Sports.
He said regional countries were no longer interested in hosting ASIAD.
"Taiwan and the UAE withdrew because they have seen that the global financial difficulties will linger in the coming years," he told the Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) newspaper.
Minh Dinh, a local resident, said it was not a surprise that Hanoi beat Surabaya because the Indonesian city is dealing with several security problems.
Shrugging off all criticism, Hoang Vinh Giang, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Olympics Committee, said Vietnam will benefit via sports development, tourism and a boost to the nation's image.
Giang sees concerns about the financial expenditure estimated at US$150 million as well as Vietnam's lack of personnel and athletes as "mental hurdles" to be overcome.
"Evaluating this as expensive or not is the job of the central government, the Ministry of Planning and Investment, the Finance Ministry and Hanoi authorities."
Giang said while the media was describing the issue as controversial, few people were aware that the Prime Minister has approved a plan to promote Vietnam's bid and the Politburo, the Party's decision-making body, had issued a resolution on hosting the ASIAD.
"Whether hosting the event will be a loss or gain cannot be an exercise for the calculator. I think there should be a more than a fifth-grade math calculation involved."
Not a priority
Critics, however, insist that the losses can be huge and hosting the event should not be a greater priority than solving more urgent problems.
Do Manh Hung, deputy chairman of the National Assembly's Social Affairs Committee, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the government has recently reported to the parliament that Vietnam has failed to achieve several important socio-economic development targets, including growth and poverty reduction.
"The state exchequer is facing difficulties in coping with the plan to increase salaries. Besides, there are many other challenges that lawmakers have reported like bad debts [at commercial banks]."
He said lawmakers have not received any plan to host the ASIAD from the government.
"There are many lessons to learn from others organizing major sports events. Greece is an example. It made huge investments in the 2004 Athens Olympics and saw a serious public debt crisis.
"If Greece is too far, there are other examples in Asia when hosting countries have struggled to recoup money invested in the ASIADs," he said, adding that these include South Korea's Incheon City that will host the 17th Asiad in 2014.
In October 2011, the Incheon Asian Games Organizing Committee (IAGOC) announced that the number of sports at the Games has been brought down from 42 to 36 and the number of venues from 53 to 49.
It also revealed that the overall budget will be set at $1.62 billion, including a $400 million project to build the 61,000-capacity Main Stadium.
But a Korea Times report in April said the city is under pressure to curtail spending on large-scale projects, including the facilities for ASIAD, due to mounting debt.
"The city's debt has surpassed 3 trillion won ($2.66 billion) to date, compared with 1.4 trillion won in 2007, although its tax revenue has remained almost flat during the same period," it said.
It also said that civic groups have called on Incheon to give up hosting rights for the Games.
Busan, another city in South Korea, invested more than $4.2 billion for the 14th ASIAD in 2002 and collected just $223.2 million in revenues.
Many critics say Vietnam's plan to host an ASIAD with just $150 million is not feasible, and a multi-fold increase in this figure is inevitable.
In 2003, Vietnam held the 22nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and overall spending was VND4.7 trillion, far exceeding the previously estimated budget of VND1.2 trillion.
While Giang of the Vietnam Olympics Committee said venues and infrastructure for the ASIAD will be used to develop sports in the country, many people are concerned that it would be a waste, as has happened previously.
Local media have reported that several facilities in Ho Chi Minh City that were built or upgraded for the 22nd SEA Games have been abandoned, degraded or used for other purposes.
The Ky Hoa Petanque Club, with six international-standard petanque courts, has been turned into a car park.
It's not so bad for the Lanh Binh Thang Stadium, but it has hosted no major Judo competition despite being upgraded to host martial arts events during the SEA Games.
The Phu Tho Sports Complex, which required more than VND140 billion to turn it into a venue that could host taekwondo competitions during the same games, has not been used for major sport competitions since. It has become a popular exhibition venue now.
Le Nhu Tien, deputy chairman of the National Assembly's Committee for Culture, Education, Youth and Children, said the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi that was built for the 22nd SEA Games was also a waste.
"The stadium and several relevant infrastructure constructions have been wasted. Now, they have even leased some places to host weddings and other non-sport activities," he said.
In feedback to Vietweek, reader Hoa Dau said: "If the government has large sums money like what it has to spend on the ASIAD, it should be used to be build hospitals nationwide because poor people are suffering from overload at existing hospitals."
Nguyen Trung, another reader, said workers have longed for a salary increase to make ends meet, but the government plans to increase it by just VND100,000 ($4.8) a month, beginning next year.
"While we have to curb all expenditures, we are about to host a very costly event. It really hurts."