I have been spending an inordinate amount of time in Jakarta, Indonesia for work. My last work trip there fortunately coincided with the 2018 Asian Games. Accordingly, I extended my trip through Sunday morning so that I might experience the Games. Below is my unvarnished review of the 2018 Asian Games.
Jakarta, Indonesia for my geographically challenged friends (The Sports Junkies come to mind), is a large group of islands in Southeast Asia. A city of roughly ten million, I would classify Jakarta somewhere in the middle of the “Westernized” scale of Asian cities. Cleaner and less gritty than Bangkok, but not to the level of the antiseptic “Mall” of Singapore. Indonesia also has the largest population of Muslims in the world. Accordingly, it isn’t exactly a partying hot spot.
Jakarta traffic is legendary for being bad. The mass transit system is primarily buses. Getting around can be frustratingly time consuming. However, the cabs are affordable and if you are willing to ride on the back of a scooter, you can further cut your travel time. For us, getting to the stadium was just time consuming. The more time you can build in for the schedule the better off you will be. Entry into the venue was relatively simple. Of course, there are number of security detectors you’ll have to go through. The efficacy of these efforts is questionable at best but it really won’t inhibit your entry time.
The games were spread out to roughly three locations. There’s a separate island location for water sports, beach volleyball and the like. The soccer games were being played in venue about an hour or two outside the Jakarta with the remaining games centralized primarily in one location within the city. From baseball to track, and swimming to archery, all those sites were within walking distance of the centerpiece GBK stadium. The stadium was completed renovated from the previous time Indonesia hosted the Games. At night time, the lit up stadium was a beautiful addition to the sparking Jakarta skyline.
Having spent much of my last 6 months visiting the city, I was able to chart the progress of the Games facilities as I often ran in the park in the mornings. The final products were impressive, particularly considering what they looked like when I first visited. Many times, I had rooms that overlooked the baseball and softball fields. What were once some very patchy grass fields with large pockets of red dirt, ultimately became top notch fields. The only complaint was the amount of seating which was the equivalent to a nicer than average high school field. The baseball field was certainly bigger and both had upgraded bleachers with seatbacks. We visited the aquatics venue for water polo and also caught a glimpse of the diving facilities. The diving boards and platforms were particularly interesting from a visual perspective, almost magically appearing from within a large wall. There was no issue with capacity at that site. These were outdoor venues, but thankfully covered to block out the tropical sun.
The last venue we visited were the tennis courts which also hosted the three on three basketball. They built a half court in the middle of the tennis court complete with a sport court plastic surface. It was almost a mirror image of the one I have in my backyard. They built elevated floor seating around the court but oddly enough to the sides and back and none facing the hoop. When we were directed into those seats we kindly requested to sit in the higher tennis stands. It took some arguing and aggressive leadership by friend Adrian, but eventually we found our way to those much better seats above and facing the basket. Apparently, those hundreds of seats were thought to be earmarked for only coaches and athletes. Based on the attendance, that could have never been the master plan. Such minor snafus and other missed opportunities were commonly noted by us. Three on three basketball is going to be an Olympic sport and it has a definite beach volleyball type vibe. A steady stream of rap from old school Salt ‘n Peppa to 50 Cent to Snoop Dog was continuously pumped during the games. Odd, but not in disconcerting way, to see heavily clothed Muslim women bobbing and weaving to the beats while the games were played. Just as an aside, maybe that’s how we get to world peace, chillin’ to Snoop with the occasional blunt thrown in to calm everyone’s ass down. I was not familiar with the 3X3 format. The games are short in duration, ten minutes with twelve second shot clocks. After a couple of games, I joked to Adrian that it ought to be ten minutes or to twenty-one, whichever comes first course just like at the playground. And wouldn’t you know it, but the very next game we found it does end at twenty-one – just like in my backyard.
Some other observations on the overall site. You couldn’t get into the venue park without a ticket. Given that tickets were logistically difficult to secure, it wasn’t like you could just walk around and take advantage of the generally appealing paths and design of the overall venue, visit the various vendors, partake in the food offerings or enjoy the other entertainment. On Saturday, there were enough events that it felt fairly vibrant. It wasn’t like tailgating at Power Five football game, more like an upcoming program like Central Florida or Texas State where the crowds are big but not the sea of humanity you see at big time U.S. sporting events. Weeknights were strictly lower rung, like UMass tailgating. It was pretty disappointing considering the magnitude of the games, the population of Jakarta, and the number of nations involved. When I mentioned this lack of access to my Indonesian friends. They were laughingly consistent in their response.
Me: “Why aren’t the venues open access so everyone can join the party?”
Indonesian: “Oh, it makes perfect sense. Indonesians would ruin the experience otherwise.”
This was said matter of factly, with a slightly disapprovingly look at me for asking such a stupid question.
Now these words are not mine, but apparently open access to the Games would ultimately result in the sites being overrun with entrepreneurial pop ups, family reunions, and any number of other events that had nothing to do with Games.
The food venues at the specific sites were fairly limited and the larger food vendor areas were more than adequate although a bit infrequent. Or course, it was all local food so if you don’t like fried or spicy foods you’d be a bit disappointed. I hit the same Pakistani food truck for some banging kebab wraps with ran me about three bucks. It is hard to complain about that. Bottle water was similarly cheap and plentiful which was nice given the open air venues in a tropical climate. Toilets / Porta-potties were in reasonable supply with no waiting. Signage in and around the venue was adequate. Generally speaking, it was a positive grade for that part of the experience.
The ticket experience, on the other hand, was a frustrating mess. The ticketing problems were well documented by the time we arrived for the second week of competition. E-tickets ran into all kinds of validation problems and were limited to purchase three days in advance. Or at least, I swear that’s what I ran into when I tried to buy them online. The Google translation of the site probably did not help either. For Thursday night, we rolled the dice and just went to the venue to buy tickets. It took us a while to find the ticket booths because they were only at one gate. Each booth was also event specific so you had to walk from one booth to next to find an open event. Imagine if you went to a stadium and you had to go to one booth for end zone seats, another booth for the 20 yard line for visitors, and another booth for the 50 yard line for the home team, etc. It was sheer lunacy. Well, we rolled with the punches and steadily went from booth to booth until we found the only event still available was women’s softball which had already started. Nonetheless we bought the tickets and eventually got to the venue to see little over half the game. I threw up my hands for Friday night and relied on one of my very kind and helpful Indonesian friends (thanks Bu Natasha!) to get us water polo tickets for Saturday morning. The only glitch was the nonsense that we had to have printed out e-tickets. Not the end of the world, but a pain in the ass when you are in a charming, old colonial hotel. Uh hello Games, that’s why they are called e-tickets.
Saturday, we hustled into the venue because we had to walk the last kilometer. The roads to the stadium were closed for the marathon. That one is on me but as we sat down, Adrian pointed out that we forgot to visit the booths for other tickets. It was a problem because, get this, you couldn’t buy tickets once you were inside the site. If we wanted to get more tickets we would have to exit and then hope we were successful so that we could come back in later. However, thanks to a combination of Adrian’s patience and some very helpful millennials at the information desk, we successfully purchased tickets to a 3×3 basketball game. We didn’t know who was playing, we just knew we had tickets.
The tickets themselves were cheap. We spent roughly $10 – $12 an event. In reality, it was an even better deal than that. After our water polo match, they announced that the next game was in ten minutes. However, they never cleared out the stands. As it was General Admission and there was a ton of room in the stadium, we just stayed put for the next game. The ironic thing was that they actually took your printed out e-ticket upon entry so you could just said you paid already. We certainly would have left if we felt we were taking someone else’s seat. The two other things that stick out were that while many events were supposedly sold out, the venues were always half full at best. In addition, if the ticket market was so tight, you would have thought a viable after market in physical tickets would have popped, legal or otherwise. There were no ticket scalpers anywhere.
Our first venue was softball on a Thursday night. It featured Taipei versus the Philippines. Given that Taipei has some history in softball’s sister sport baseball, I think we all assumed they would smoke the Philippines. However, when we arrived, the game was close. Softball is usually all about the pitching, and I would say these hurlers weren’t as dominant as those of the top tier countries. The Philippines defense was stellar. We were fairly surprised until we heard the shortstop and second basemen start up some chatter. They were clearly American which was easily verified by the Games reasonably effective website. It was a good game until one of the Taipei players jacked a three run homer to put up a convincing lead. And jacked is no exaggeration. That ball moved faster than a Trump lawyer looking for immunity. It was not too surprising though because those were some big women on the Taipei team. Ultimately the Philippines was able to claw back a couple of runs but came up a bit short in the end. The only negative was that we couldn’t enjoy an ice cold Bintang beer during the game. It wouldn’t be the last time at the Games I would say that to myself.
Saturday morning was Water Polo with Kazakhstan facing Korea. As we watched the teams warm up, it appeared based on fitness level this would be all Kazakhstan. There was at least one Pillsbury dough boy on the Korean team and couple that looked softer than my pillow. The Kazakhstanis looked harder and tougher. In the end that was all it took. They pretty much owned the pool and won handily. The second game between Iran and Singapore was a little closer but not much. Singapore kept it tight in the first half, but it was pretty much over half through the third period. To my surprise, Korea actually qualified out of pool play (no pun intended)
Saturday afternoon was 3×3 hoops both men and women. Not surprisingly, this was more a game of the three point bombs (that count for two points – regular baskets are one point) and layups, then the throw down jams and isolations of the U.S. game. You would have seen more dunking at the local coffee shop than on the court. Our first game was between Iraq and Iran and we weren’t exactly sure who to root for. We ended up cheering for Iraq, probably because they were the lesser team and they hate America less, maybe(?). Alas Iran won, and would go on to qualify for the medal round. To be honest, in the later games they were a little arrogant with some of the more undermanned teams. Part of me could not help but think Iran won’t be so cocky in the Olympics if they face a U.S. team. We saw three medal round qualifiers and I would imagine you could put together the top 50 U.S. 3×3 teams and none of them would lose to these guys. We didn’t see Japan or China and they may be better quality. I did have soft spot for Kazakhstan who came back in their last game to qualify thanks to one their shooters getting hotter than an Indonesian buffet and lighting up the three point line. It was clearly an emotional win and nice to see.
The talent level of the women’s teams was worse. Of the teams we saw, Korea was the best quality. Some of the others would be lucky to hang with a group of U.S. high school players. Honestly, some of the players were probably in high school. We caught the 2nd day of Group D play where Korea was the top of the class. The other three teams, Sri Lanka, Syria and Indonesia were evenly matched. The first game we saw South Korea smoke Sri Lanka, who incredibly still used a set shot circa the 1950’s. When Syria came out for warm ups in their game with Sri Lanka, they had a sweet stroke and looked like they would easily handle Sri Lanka. It was not the case as the Sri Lanka’s guards were too quick for Syria. Or, Syria was just too tired. In first round of group play, they had found themselves on the short end of two one-point losses to Indonesia and Korea. The last game on Group D was also the loudest as Indonesia played Korea. The Indonesian fans packed the joint as the game was a battle of the undefeated teams of Group D. The fans were in a lather after an exciting warm up by the Games’ mascots, Bhin Bhin, Atung, and Kaka doing their version of a hip hop dance team. The Laker Girls this was not, but in conservative Indonesia, that’s about as wild as it gets. However, the excitement was short lived. South Korea was simply a cut above Indonesia and they ran away with it.
There was a lot like about these Games. The facilities, ticket prices and sheer number of events available made it a worthwhile visit. Admittedly, China, Japan and South Korea dominated these games and represented the best hopes in terms of future Olympic glory. The quality of play was not exactly world class in the events we saw. To be fair, we were watching western sports. I am quite sure the badminton and table tennis players in the Asian Games, would make the American players look like backyard lackeys and rec room losers. The biggest disappointment in the Games was an obvious lack of experience in hosting a world class sporting event. They got it about 90% right, but sometimes the remaining 10% makes all the difference. The ticket ordering was not smooth and they clearly have no clue how to estimate and account for demand. Badminton tickets were still available online the day of the event, but not at the site. When we watched some of the badminton from the park we saw tons of empty seats.
There were other examples of Indonesia not being ready for prime time. They had big video screens but most of the time they were static billboards and not used to show live action. In another instance, we were forced to mill around outside the stadium for 3×3 basketball up until 15 minutes before tip off. Does it go back to the original premise that Indonesians can’t “have nice things”? Lastly, I know they are a Muslim country but would it have killed them to put in a small beer garden? How do they think we watch baseball and softball games anyway? We don’t find them anymore more exciting than they do. That’s why we say “A Cub Fan and Bud Man.”
In the end, I would have planned better, picked out my events way in advance and pre-ordered my tickets. It would have made for a smoother, less stressful build up to the games. However, once inside the park and the events, it was actually a pretty good time. Not as exciting and fun as a night game at Lane Stadium, but not too bad. Not too bad at all.