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Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are both keen to bring the Olympics to their countries. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by Getty Images)
Asia Insight

Indonesia and India seek Olympic glory with rival bids

Both see 2032 Games as a chance to step out as global powers

JAKARTA/NEW DELHI -- Indonesian officials can almost see it now: In 2032, the world's best athletes will converge on the archipelago for the first Olympics in Southeast Asia, giving the country the ideal opportunity to showcase itself as an economic powerhouse.

After successfully hosting the 2018 Asian Games, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo revealed Indonesia's intention to stage the biggest international sporting event. His government formally submitted a bid to the International Olympic Committee in February. But as other Asian countries look to build soft power and rev up their own economies, there is likely to be serious competition.

Malaysia and Singapore are reportedly considering a joint bid, and the idea of a North-South Korea bid has been floated as well. The most formidable rival might be India, which has expressed its determination to bid and could make a strong case.

The ultimate winner, meanwhile, will face the risk of a Pyrrhic victory, given the cost overruns that have plagued the Olympics in recent decades.

With or without the games, Indonesia hopes to become one of the world's 10 largest economies by 2030. Despite being the biggest among the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations economies, it has struggled to win global recognition, lagging behind some regional peers in surveys on investors' preferred destinations. Manufacturers ranked Indonesia fifth in terms of attractiveness in a poll by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation last year, down from third in 2016, due to rising labor costs and a lack of legal transparency.

Jakarta, however, is showing more self-assurance. "The experience of the Asian Games -- we believe it was very successful -- has created the confidence that we can do something bigger," Erick Thohir, the president of Indonesia's national Olympic committee, told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview, in which he revealed for the first time that the national capital would be the candidate city.

"Of course, we are not blindly wanting to host the Olympics," he said. "The Indonesian economy in 2030 will be one of the largest economies in the world ... so because of that, Indonesia should be capable of hosting such a big event."

Indonesia was ranked 16th among the world's economies in 2016, based on gross domestic product at market exchange rates, according to global consultancy PwC. In 2030, it is projected to climb to ninth.

"No matter what, Indonesia is moving in the right direction as one of the biggest countries globally," Thohir said.

For Widodo, the bid was partly an attempt to whip up support ahead of the presidential election in April. The president was alarmed by the momentum of opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, and was keen to use every means at his disposal to attract wavering voters.

Now that Widodo has secured a second term, the Olympic bid takes on a different sort of significance for him.

Since he cannot run a third time, the president will be looking to cement a positive legacy. His initiative to move the country's administrative capital outside Jakarta could help. But a winning Olympic bid would allow Widodo "to be remembered as equal to the founding fathers for creating such a proud global achievement," said Ray Rangkuti, a politics professor at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

Another Asian leader who won a second term earlier this year -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- could stand in Widodo's way.

India is already the world's seventh-largest economy and is also one of the fastest growing. Analysts say its interest in the Olympics is about improving its global image. "India obviously wants to portray itself as a soft power," said Abhaya Srivastava, a senior sports writer in New Delhi. "It wants a higher sporting profile that can match its growing economic clout," she said, pointing to India's ambitious target of expanding the $2.7 trillion economy to $5 trillion over the next five years.

The enthusiasm of potential Asian hosts like Indonesia and India is a boon for the IOC, which has struggled with its own image issues in recent years as candidates begin to see the games as a black hole for cash.

During the bidding for the 2024 Summer Games, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest all withdrew, leaving only Paris and Los Angeles. The French capital was awarded the 2024 rights while LA will play host in 2028.

High costs have long been an issue. The Athens Olympics in 2004 cost around $11 billion, reportedly nearly double the initial budget. Many of the venues now lie abandoned.

The 2016 Rio Olympics cost 43.3 billion reals ($11.2 billion at the current rate), around 14.5 billion reals more than planned.

Although the IOC now "actively promotes the maximum use of existing facilities and the use of temporary and demountable venues," according to its Olympic Agenda 2020, the cost of next year's Tokyo Games has still ballooned to 1.35 trillion yen ($12.6 billion) from the initial 700 billion yen. The organizers have been unable to hold costs down despite the city's already well-developed infrastructure.

In Indonesia's case, some of the groundwork has already been laid thanks to the Asian Games, since some key facilities were either upgraded or built anew. "Hosting the 2018 Asian Games [was] a good investment for Indonesia to host a higher level of sport events such as the Olympics," said Deden Rukmana, an urban planning professor at Alabama A&M University in the U.S. "The cost would be less."

Still, the professor said, it "could be a challenge if the IOC requires new stadiums for soccer. That's why Jakarta needs to collaborate with [other cities] to use their stadiums."

Despite the cost concerns, Thohir of the Indonesian Olympic committee believes the public will be fully behind the bid. He said the Asian Games last year advanced Jakarta's development, with residents now enjoying the benefits. The Olympics, he suggested, could spark an even more dramatic transformation, driving progress on everything from plastic pollution to water and air quality. He said it can be hard to spur action on these issues "if there's no big movement."

Support from host city residents is crucial, as the candidates will likely be expected to hold referendums to avoid late-stage withdrawals. A high degree of interest in sports can help drum up "yes" votes -- another way the Asian Games experience may buoy Indonesia's Olympic bid.

In the past, Indonesians tended to follow soccer, badminton and little else. But last year, citizens flocked to the main Asian Games stadium to cheer on their fellow countrymen and women in oft-overlooked sports.

One athlete who drew nationwide attention was Lalu Muhammad Zohri, a 19-year-old sprinter who competed in the men's 100 meters. He shot to prominence when he won the World Youth Championship in Finland just before the Asian Games. His tragic but inspiring story -- born to a poor family on the island of Lombok, he lost his mother early and his father at 17, and trained barefoot on the beaches -- also made him a fan favorite.

Although Zohri finished seventh at the Asian Games in front of his home crowd, Indonesians hope he can reach the podium in Tokyo. He qualified for the 2020 Games by finishing third at the Seiko Golden Grand Prix Osaka, where he raced against American former Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin.

Zohri mania and the buzz around sports in general have helped to expand the Indonesian market. "During 2018-2019, Indonesia's Sporting and Recreational Services industry achieved double-digit growth driven by successful organization of the Asian Games in 2018," said Egle Tekutyte, sports and entertainment analyst at Euromonitor International. "A reported $3 billion were invested in sports and transportation infrastructure in the country, hoping to have a positive impact on future sports development and tourism in Indonesia."

Like Zohri, India's Sakshi Malik created a wave of excitement when she became the country's first female wrestler to win an Olympic medal in Rio. Her bronze in the 58-kilogram women's freestyle was one of just two medals India won that year. "A big dream has been fulfilled," she said in an interview with local TV at the time, saying she hoped her victory would boost women's wrestling in her homeland, resulting in more Olympic qualifications.

"People used to say wrestling is not for girls," Malik said, "but this mindset has changed after [Indian] female wrestlers started bagging medals."

Euromonitor's Tekutyte said India's sports and recreation market remains much smaller than Indonesia's in terms of value. But the analyst said the Indian industry is "set to record a higher 9% compound annual growth rate during 2018-2030," fueled by the Modi government's $262 million investment in sports development.

Both countries will be watching to see how Tokyo pulls off the games next summer. Thohir said Indonesia can learn not only about the facilities and traffic management but also environmental technology, like electric cars. "I think this is something that we have to learn more from [Tokyo]," he said.

Indonesia's Olympic committee should take lessons from Tokyo and "replicate and expand on them for Jakarta 2032," said Rukmana of Alabama A&M University. "Hosting the Olympics is a giant task," he said, noting IOC rules and guidelines on details like seating and lighting, along with other logistical hurdles like transportation, food, beverages and waste management. "All are massive and complicated for serving world-class athletes."

A Toyota vehicle designed for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics: Potential hosts will be watching how the Japanese capital handles the games. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

That view is shared in India. "Can we ensure a clean, healthy environment for all these global athletes?" asked Srivastava, the sports writer. "We have to look at Japan as to how it is tackling all these issues with innovative ideas."

Of all the challenges, Indonesia's Thohir believes winning the bid for the 2032 Games will be the easiest, since Indonesia's national credo -- "Unity in Diversity" -- naturally dovetails with the Olympic ideals.

"What is the value of the Olympic movement? That is brotherhood," he said, adding that Indonesia has "300 tribes, 700 languages."

"Unity in diversity was one theme that we brought to the Asian Games. It will be part of the Olympics too."

Nikkei staff writer Ismi Damayanti contributed to this article.

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