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INCHEON, South Korea – The Asian Games wrapped up on Saturday with China dominating the gold-medal count and North Korea stealing the limelight.
As the final events played out ahead of the closing ceremony, China had won 151 gold medals — well ahead of the 79 won by host South Korea and the 47 golds that went to Japan. All told, 14 world records were set during the games, which brought together more than 9,500 athletes from 45 countries. More than 40 Asian records also fell.
"These numbers show the development of sports in the region," said Sheik Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, president of the Olympic Council of Asia. "Everybody was satisfied with the success and the level of the games."
China proved to be well ahead of the rest of the region in the pool, on the track and in an unmatchable variety of the other sports that are included in the games, which feature everything from standard Olympic events to regional specialties like kabbadi — a rough, tag-like game that is popular on the subcontinent — to southeast Asian favorite sepak takraw, an acrobatic game that resembles volleyball but is played primarily with the feet.
North Korea turned out to be a major presence — its athletes won a modest 11 gold medals but set five of the nine weightlifting world records.
After months of bumpy negotiations with Seoul, it sent a delegation of 150 athletes and, in a surprise move, two of its top leaders arrived in Incheon on Saturday to attend the closing ceremony. After each medal, its athletes sang the praises of leader Kim Jong Un, who has been absent from the public eye lately, generating rumors in the foreign media that he is ill or that something more mysterious is going on its esoteric inner circle.
The highlight of the games for North Korea was the women's soccer final against Japan, which North Korea won convincingly 3-1. State media reported the nation was "seized with ecstasy" by the victory and quoted farmers, students, coal miners and factory workers saying how they were inspired to work harder for the glory of their country after seeing the match.
The games' most dramatic moment was the South Korean men's win in the soccer final against North Korea.
Playing under tight security before a fired-up crowd of 47,000 in one of the few events that actually drew a capacity crowd during the games, the South Koreans scored in the 29th minute of extra-time after a hard-fought but scoreless match.
The games were not, of course, without controversy.
Along with the perennial disputes over scoring in boxing, which brought complaints from five countries, Qatar's women's basketball team pulled out of the competition without playing a single game because of a rule banning them from wearing their traditional headscarves, or hijabs, on the court. The team said the rule, which is not observed in most other sports, was discriminatory.
"I am upset about the hijab," said OCA president al-Sabah. "There is no reason to reject the hijab, not only for basketball but for any sport."
He added, however, that he believes basketball's international governing association will rethink its rules in the future, and the experience in Incheon may push that process along.
Officials said a milestone of the games was its doping tests — more were conducted at Incheon than ever before.
As of Saturday afternoon, six doping cases had been announced, including a gold-winning hammer thrower from China and a gold medalist in Wushu, a Chinese martial art, from Malaysia. But officials said the other athletes — including a soft tennis player from Cambodia and a soccer player from Tajikistan — were likely to have ingested banned stimulants without knowing or deliberately intending to cheat.
Organizers and OCA officials acknowledged the cost of hosting the Asian Games continues to be a problem.
Incheon's organizing committee had to work on a reduced budget and touted the event as a model for cheaper, more streamlined Asian Games in the future. Even so, the Incheon games and related infrastructure projects reportedly cost about 2 billion dollars. Saying it simply can't afford such a burden, Vietnam announced it had relinquished its right to hold the next games.
Jakarta will instead be the host in 2018.