The Trinh Hoai Duc sports complex in Hanoi, built for the 2003 Southeast Asian Games, has not been of much use since. Critics are urging Vietnam to withdraw from hosting the 2019 Asian Games, saying it will incur similar huge, wasteful expenditures at a time of great economic difficulty. Photo: Ngo Nguyen
Facing strict criticism over the high (and seemingly escalating) cost of hosting the sporting event amid economic difficulties and a lack of sports infrastructure, Vietnam has decided to withdraw from the region’s largest sporting event, which would have made it the first Southeast Asian nation for 20 years to host the showpiece competition.
At a meeting of the central government on Thursday, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung instructed agencies concerned to touch base with the Olympic Committee of Asia and involved partners on the country's decision to pull plug on the quadrennial 2019 Asian Games (Asiad).
"Vietnam has little experience in hosting a major international sporting event like the Asiad," Dung said at the meeting. "The country was ill-prepared when bidding for hosting the event, failing to hammer out a feasible plan to ensure the success [of hosting the event]."
In 2012, the capital city of Hanoi won the vote over Surabaya of Indonesia in a two-city race. Dubai reportedly pulled out at the 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 Earlier, four other potential bidders, including Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi and Hong Kong had withdrawn, mostly for financial reasons.
Ever since, critics have said that organizing such a big event would result in an economic burden and that the actual cost of hosting the Asiad would be much higher than the estimated amount.
The Olympic Council of Asia was not immediately available for comments.
"So far the government has yet to ratify the master plan on hosting the Asiad," Dung said at the meeting.
The successful hosting of international sporting events will help to boost economic growth and promote the image of the country globally, Dung said. But the failure to do so will have a bearing on Vietnam's reputation, he said.
He said Vietnam is not immune from the global economic crisis. The state and local budgets are still very limited and have to be earmarked for other urgent socio-economic tasks, he said.
"Vietnam will bid for hosting the Asiad at another appropriate time," Dung said.
In a country that has been notorious for squandering taxpayers’ money on hosting extravagant and unnecessary events, the public has been less than jubilant since Hanoi was picked to host 2019 Asiad in 2012.
When bidding for the event in 2012, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism estimated the cost would be US$150 million, which was already criticized as too high for Vietnam.
But at a meeting last month, Deputy Finance Minister Do Hoang Tuan Anh quoted a Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism plan as saying that the government will have to prepare around $300 million for the event, almost doubling the initial estimate.
The figure did not include VND820 billion ($38.67 million) in estimated expenses for the training of Vietnamese athletes who would take part in the Games, he said.
In several documents about hosting the 18th Asiad, the finance ministry showed it was suspicious of the sports ministry’s plan, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported.
In a document dated January 2013, the finance ministry said the Asiad would be much bigger than South East Asian Games 2003 but the planners only estimated cost as 1.2 times higher.
In another document last July, the finance ministry asked how the sports ministry would enlist private investment for 72 percent of the cost as planned.
The finance ministry has repeatedly asked the sports ministry to reconsider hosting the event because Vietnam’s economy is in the doldrums and the state exchequer should prioritize urgent social welfare issues.
Last week, Vuong Bich Thang, general director of the Sports Department, said the cost would not exceed $150 million and that was is reasonable to host Asiad with that amount.
“We think what residents are concerned about the most is whether the money will be wasted or siphoned off during carrying out the plan,” he said.
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UNFAMILIAR SPORTS, THE PEOPLE SPEAK
Experts have also said that it would be a waste for Vietnam to build infrastructure for a host of sports that are unpopular here. They say such facilities will never be used again.
According to the plan, Vietnam will host 36 sports, including 28 Olympic sports and eight popular Asian sports.
Of the 28 sports, there are many that are unfamiliar to Vietnam and require new and costly infrastructure like track cycling, equestrian, hockey, baseball, cricket and American football.
“These sports are strange to Vietnam where no one plays and there are no facilities for them as well,” the Vietnamese online edition of Saigon Times editorialized.
It said many participating countries offered loans for Vietnam to organize sports that are common in their countries. But by accepting such offers, the host country may end up in debt.
Saigon Times further criticized relevant authorities for not surveying residents’ opinions over hosting the event like Hong Kong did.
A recent online survey by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper attracted more than 14,400 respondents, of which 12,162 voted for Vietnam to withdraw from hosting the Asiad.
Another survey by VnExpress found that 6,033 of 6,883 respondents voted for Vietnam to pull the plug. A similar survey on Zing News found 2,970 of 3,869 voters supported Vietnam’s withdrawal.