Nick Butler: Danang 2016 shows how Beach Games, done well, could be the future of multi-sports events

Two overtime finals in handball, won by Qatar's men and Vietnam's women, were other highlights ©Twitter/QOC

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Rowing, for me, is a sport that conjures memories of wind, rain and early morning starts as I clumsily pulled my way down a weed infested river because I had been told I "simply had to give it a go while at university…"

It is certainly still one of the more traditional Olympic disciplines, having changed little in culture and concept since its 18th century origins, and - with the possible exception of equestrian - is more associated with the educated and affluent than any other.

Rowing here at the Asian Beach Games was completely different.

Taking place in specially designed coastal boats which were first pioneered in France in the late 1980s, rowers would slalom their way out to sea past a succession of strategically placed buoys before turning 180 degrees and racing back to shore. The highlight? Races would start and finish with rowers running down the sand and clambering into boats before leaping out again and hauling their exhausted bodies towards the finish line.

Hundreds of curious spectators and passers-by watched on from a makeshift stand on the beach as a dubstep remix of Eminem and Rihanna’s Love The Way You Lie blared out courtesy of a live DJ spinning the decks from a nearby tent. With knockout races taking place at frenetic seven minute intervals, teams also employed Formula One-style technicians to patch-up their boats.

It may have had the founders of Henley and the Boat Race turning in their graves, but this was a beach sport like no other.

"We wanted to bring jeopardy back into the sport," said Guin Batten, a member of Britain’s silver medal winning quad sculls crew at Sydney 2000 who now chairs the International Rowing Federation’s Rowing For All Commission. "We also wanted to embrace both the sea and sand and introduce something genuinely innovative, and where the crowd could also be close to the action."

This for me was the highlight of the Asian Beach Games which close in Vietnam today. It was a genuinely new and exciting format which combined speed, skill and stamina to revolutionise what many consider a stuffy and old sport. Precisely, in short, what any beach sport should be attempting to do.

Other events were similarly successful. Beach versions of football (“soccer”), handball and volleyball, of course, were effortless to replicate. In handball, two high quality finals each went to overtime. Cross-country running also enjoyed a highly effective, if brutally tough, transformation from mud to sand, while basketball 3x3 took place on a makeshift court close to the beach - but still fully embodied the ethos of the event.

Muay thai, which drew thousands of transfixed locals to cheer on Vietnam against arch-rivals Thailand, was another big success, while other combat sports like wrestling and sambo were similarly well supported.

Some, I enjoyed less. Bodybuilding certainly attracted a good crowd, keen to catch a glimpse of some oiled and finely chiselled flesh. But most of us had absolutely no idea what was going on due to the lack of announcers, and no idea how the scoring system worked. Some of the other non-Olympic sports were also less well organised and struggled on the beach. Any kicking sport, for instance, had problems with athletes getting sand in their eyes. Others, like athletics, were poorly attended by athletes and spectators alike.

Overall, however, it was a hugely impressive event.

Two years ago in Phuket, the Asian Beach Games felt in many ways like a home for all the sports that did not belong in any other continental multi-sports competition. Yes, there were some genuine beach sports. But there were also a plethora of boat events taking place well off shore, as well as air and extreme competitions held away from the beach. Six clusters were also separated by driving distances of well over an hour, reducing the atmosphere and community-feel.

Here everything had been scaled down. Vietnam had originally wanted to split events across four cities, including in Nha Trang 500 kilometres to the south. But as financial problems mounted, the Olympic Council of Asia put their foot down and insisted that every event should be held close together on My Kye beach. Officially there were four clusters, but really there were two - within an easy 20 minute walk of each other - with athletics and woodball a 10-minute drive away.

Full financial information has not yet been published, but the OCA claim that the entire event cost $10 million (£7.7 million/€8.9 million) and that at least $6 million (£4.7 million/€5.3 million) of this will be covered through sponsorship. Others have estimated that it is more like double that amount when unexpected costs are considered, but either way, this is remarkable and something that should be shouted from the rooftops as sporting budgets continue to balloon.

Virtually all of the venues were temporary and some required no more than a few tents and one grandstand. There was no Athletes’ Village, with competitors staying instead in local hotels, while an effective transport plan was less important because most of the venues were within walking distance.

There were elements which would have benefited from more funding: marketing and promotional work, for instance, with many locals not really aware of the event before it began. Other things also happened which organisers could not have got away with at a bigger scale event, like the power problems which riddled the Closing Ceremony and moving finals back two hours on the day in order to ensure better weather.

But this was a perfect example of how a sporting event can still benefit a local area. It would be an exaggeration to say the Asian Beach Games has "put Danang on the map", but it has certainly done much to benefit a city best known for being one of the last to fall in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. It forms part of a promotional cog also including an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit next year set to involve the leaders of 20 regional powers, including China, Russia and the United States.

The OCA are shifting away from a two-year cycle for the Asian Beach Games after this year, but insist this is only to ease pressure on an already congested sporting timetable. "It will be a challenge for the Asian Beach Games to top the success of Danang," said the body’s director general Husain Al-Musallam today. "But we will try."

Four countries - Cambodia, India, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - have reportedly already come forward.

Olympic host cities - cough, Tokyo, cough - could learn a lot from the obvious benefit here of a compact format, while the event also showed a value for money that other events can only dream of.

Are beach formats thus the way forward instead of continental events such as the European or even the Asian Games? These are far more expensive and onerous to host and, essentially, are just pale replicas of the Olympics?

The Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) are still due to launch an inaugural World Beach Games in San Diego, although it has been pushed back two years from 2017 until 2019.

ANOC are being cagey in letting us know exactly what is going on. Clearly, they have realised a two-year timetable was far too short to fully plan and market the event. This was probably only introduced anyway in order to ensure they got in there first before SportAccord could press-on with their plans for an alternative rival in Sochi.

They certainly need to work hard at their marketing and promotional strategies, and we have been told that their initial cost projections were wide of the mark. This is unsurprising, considering ANOC’s complete lack of experience in anything like this, and it is key they get some good external help.

But the Games clearly still has vast potential.

One of the strengths of Danang was how it embraced local culture, and San Diego should do likewise. I will not do an impression of golfer Danny Willett's brother by attempting to summarise American culture, but no country does cheerleaders, loud music and dancing better than the US. If marketed well, surely sponsors and broadcasters should be battling to jump on board?

They have still not confirmed their final calendar, but the provisional one looks exciting. As well as all the regulars - basketball 3x3, volleyball, athletics, surfing and skateboarding - other sports proposed include esports, flying disc, BMX and tennis. Rowing, who claim they were set to be in the SportAccord version, are thought not to be currently included, and that is a shame.

Others, like gymnastics and diving, should also be seeking involvement in an event which, if done right, could be spectacular.

The IOC have a huge amount of work to do to convince skeptical public and politicians to launch Olympic bids. But, instead of considering them as a rival, they should look to work alongside and compliment Beach Games.

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