Participating is what counts for small nations

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Participating is what counts for small nations

GUANGZHOU, China - As China, Korea and Japan dominate the top of the Asian Games medals table, spare a thought for the disparate collection of nations desperately hoping for their moment of fame.

A handful of teams competing in Guangzhou have never made it on to the podium at an Asian Games - never mind won a gold medal - and if the first week of action is anything to go by, glory looks like it is eluding them yet again.

With the Asiad approaching its halfway point, 24 of the 45 nations or territories in Guangzhou have got a medal. The Maldives, Bhutan and Timor-Leste are yet to taste medal success of any description in the history of the Asian Games, but it is not for want of trying.

Tshewang Nidup, Bhutan’s head of mission, said he hoped the tiny and impoverished Himalayan country might break through in the boxing ring, where two Bhutanese fighters won their opening fights on Tuesday and Wednesday. The only other sport Bhutan has entered is taekwondo.

“We have never been to such a huge city like Guangzhou before,” an awestruck Nidup told AFP.

With more than 10 million people, the southern Chinese metropolis dwarfs Bhutan’s entire population.

“Bhutan is such a small nation of about 700,000 people, so this is a great opportunity to come to a big city and learn about other countries,” said Nidup. “We are very proud to be here. We don’t have to win any medals; just to participate is a big thing for a country like Bhutan.”

The Maldives, better known for its idyllic beaches than its sporting prowess, is another that has yet to make the podium. The island chain has a population of little over 300,000 - compare that to medal table-toppers China: population 1.3 billion - but has still managed to send a relatively large contingent of 83 athletes to the Asian Games.

Their cricket, football and basketball teams make up the bulk of its competitors, and the Maldives put up a decent showing in men’s football, falling 3-0 in their opener to Oman, with two late goals padding the score. The stubborn islanders then secured very respectable 0-0 draws with Pakistan and regional giants Thailand, coached by former Manchester United captain Bryan Robson.

The Maldives finished third out of four in Group F, failing to qualify for the next stage but condemning Pakistan - population 170 million - to the wooden spoon.

“We don’t expect to win any medals,” said Maldives team spokesman Shinaz Ali. “But for the first time in our history we got two points in football, which is a really good thing for us.”

Ali added that they were also pleased with performances in women’s table tennis.

“We don’t have enough facilities at home to train like the other countries, which have swimming pools and athletics tracks.”

Bhutan and the Maldives can take heart from Macau, the southern Chinese territory of 550,000 near Hong Kong that is better known as a gambling paradise than a sporting mecca. The former Portuguese colony had never won an Asian Games gold before, but all that changed on Sunday when Jia Rui made history when he claimed top honors in wushu. Macau has competed at the Asian Games since 1990, but until Jia’s breakthrough, Macau had only ever won five silvers and 10 bronze.

The 23-year-old Jia said it was a proud moment for him and his homeland.

“The gold medal not only belongs to me, but Macau,” he said.

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