Indian hockey team captain P. R. Sreejesh greets women hockey team captain Rani Rampal before leaving for the Asian Games in New Delhi on Monday. Image Credit: PTI

Jakarta

Thousands of athletes are flying in as Indonesia makes final preparations to host the Asian Games — the world’s second biggest multi-sports event, taking place against a backdrop of terrorism fears, environmental concerns and logistical headaches.

Organisers are making reassuring noises about their arrangements but Indonesia has never hosted a sports event on this scale, with 16,000 competitors and officials descending on Jakarta and Palembang, a sleepy port city on Sumatra island.

While the Olympics has a slightly higher number of participants, the Asian Games is ahead in terms of complexity: it has 40 sports, including the full Olympic programme and some lesser-known regional favourites.

Olympic heavyweights China will expect to retain their position at the top of the medals table, ahead of Japan and South Korea — who will march with North Korea at the opening ceremony, and form joint teams in women’s basketball, canoeing and rowing.

However, Saturday’s opening ceremony comes just three months after Indonesia suffered its deadliest terror attack in more than 10 years, when suicide bombers killed 13 people in the nation’s second-biggest city, Surabaya.

Indonesia’s notorious haze from forest fires is another concern, while organisers are hoping to mitigate Jakarta’s grinding traffic with dedicated lanes, banning odd and even licence plate numbers on alternate days and closing schools.

But this time around, chief organiser Erick Thohir, the savvy businessman who is president of Inter Milan, promises that Indonesia will be able to cope.

“There are no problems for the preparation so far,” Thohir said last week. “Even if we have problems we will solve them right there, right then.”

Among those descending on Jakarta were the confident India men’s and women’s hockey teams, who are looking to secure qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The 18-member women’s team will begin their campaign against hosts Indonesia in their opening match in Pool B clash on August 19, the men’s will begin their title defence against Indonesia on August 20.

Speaking about improving on their bronze medal in 2014, women’s team captain Rani Rampal said: “We are going into the Asian Games after a strong performance in the Women’s World Cup which has given us a lot of confidence.”

“Though we were disappointed that we did not make the semi-finals, winning a gold in the Asian Games will help ease that pain. The team is upbeat, confident and we are eager to further improve our career best World Ranking of No. 9 by winning the Asian Games,” she added.

The women’s team will face South Korea, Thailand, Kazakhstan and Indonesia in Pool B and will have to finish in the top two in the Pool Stage to make the semi-final of the Asian Games.

Meanwhile the men’s team — grouped with Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong — will be aiming to defend their title and ensure good momentum as they approach the season finale in November at the Men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar.

“We had good lead-up to the Asian Games with high intensity training camp in Bengaluru,” said goalkeeper-captain PR Sreejesh. “We also did well in the practice matches against Bangladesh, Korea and New Zealand where we wanted to implement certain changes in goalscoring positions within the striking circle because that was one of the areas we fell behind in the Champions Trophy.

“We have also worked a lot on our penalty corner conversion, penalty corner defending and shoot-outs. Now we just need to execute perfectly in every single match and return home with the Gold.”

Asked who would be India’s toughest opponent this time around, Sreejesh said: “No team can be taken lightly because every single team would come with the mind set of winning the tournament and get direct qualification for Tokyo Olympics.

“However, I feel that with the potential we have in the current team we will be fighting to better our own performance and ensure we play like a champion squad.”