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VIDEO: How did your favorite korfballer do?
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — China snubbed the opening ceremony. A tropical storm forced the canoe polo indoors. And female Brazilian athletes scandalized Taiwan by going topless on a local beach.
But aside from those hiccups, the World Games 2009 — an obscure sporting event run under the patronage of the Olympic Committee but featuring non-Olympic sports — was celebrated in a closing ceremony Sunday as a smashing success.
"The 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung have been the best games ever!" said a punchy International World Games Association president Ron Froelich to a screaming crowd Sunday night.
This year's games had an especially apt setting. Taiwan, the island-nation that craves greater recognition, played host to 31 sports that are fighting for more respect (korfball, fistball, ultimate frisbee).
Sure, it's easy to ridicule a sports event that features competitive "canoe polo" and "artistic roller-skating." But the athletes showed just as much heart as Olympians. And for sheer entertainment value (and novelty), I'll take the World Games.
The Russians came out on top in Kaohsiung, grabbing 18 golds and 47 medals total — compared to the U.S. haul of 13 (26 overall). Italy and China followed Russia in the gold medal count.
Iraq sent one jujitsu athlete who failed to get a medal; ditto the Pakistani beach handball team.
One of the Games' mottos, "The World is Watching," was clearly an overstatement (or wishful thinking — no U.S. broadcaster picked up the Games). But for those few who were tuned in, the Games were a quirky, down-to-earth answer to the over-hyped and security-choked Olympics.
Overall, Taiwan did a great job as host. Japanese architect Toyo Ito's sci-fi, serpentine Main Stadium got rave reviews, and was truly stunning at night — though it was too bad the Games couldn't make more use of the venue (it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, ultimate frisbee and rugby).
The opening ceremony featured some brilliant creative touches, while avoiding the bombast of last year's ceremony in Beijing. Temple gods rolled into the stadium on neon-lit scooters, in a combination of traditional and contemporary Taiwan. Later, a phalanx of middle-aged "shiqu mama" — community moms, who can be seen doing evening exercises in parks across Taiwan — danced to a throbbing techno beat.
Taiwan was more than prepared to handle the media. At many venues' media centers, volunteers far outnumbered journalists, and security guards would wander in to snatch up all the uneaten snacks. The Taiwanese themselves gave their typical good-humored, humble welcome to foreigners.
"We're still not good enough to compare with the Americans and Australians," taxi driver Tsou Ching-kun said, complaining about Taiwan's athletes. At one subway station, a worker made my day by asking, "Are you an athlete?" Nearby, a young Taiwanese girl tried out a korfball net they'd put up at the station.