HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam has withdrawn as the host of the 2019 Asian Games, saying it lacked funds and the country's reputation could be at risk if the event flops.
The government's initial decision to host the games had generated little excitement domestically, and there had been increasing opposition in the media and on blogs. Many questioned whether the cost — in the hundreds of millions of dollars — was worth it given the country was still struggling to emerge from the global financial crisis.
The Olympic Council of Asia on Friday said it was "surprised" by the decision, which leaves it scrambling to find a new host.
"The matter will have to be discussed at length by the OCA," Randhir Singh, the group's secretary-general, told The Associated Press. "It's a decision which has to be taken judiciously considering various factors. We have to decide who will be able to deliver, keeping in mind the time factor."
Vietnam's sports ministry had budgeted $150 million for the event, the largest in terms of participant numbers outside of the Summer Olympics. But economists and others had said the bill could be five times higher, and possibly reach the spending levels for this year's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, which could reportedly top $1 billion.
Vietnam's authoritarian government is highly adverse to domestic criticism, and an explosion in Internet use in recent years has given its opponents many hard-to-control avenues to express opposition. As Russia found during the Winter Games, hosting a major event also brings international and social media scrutiny, something Vietnam's secretive leaders generally seek to avoid.
"Hosting this could help us promote the country's image and position. However if the hosting is not properly and successfully prepared, it will have the opposite effect," the government said in a statement late Thursday. "The state budget is limited and must be prioritized for other immediate tasks."
Singh said the Vietnam government had yet to inform the OCA of its decision. So unexpected was the announcement that the OCA website still had Hanoi scheduled as the 2019 host early Friday, with a video promoting the event.
While the OCA will have to quickly decide on a replacement host, it does have the benefit of an extra year as Hanoi was to have been the first games of a new schedule that would put the event the year ahead of the Summer Olympics.
Surabaya, Indonesia, had been the other serious bidder for 2019, while Dubai, United Arab Emirates, expressed initial interest but withdrew.
Vietnam's top sprinter, Vu Thi Huong, was personally disappointed but she supported the decision.
"Like all Vietnamese, I would like friends from other countries to come to Vietnam to see the country with their own eyes, but once they come they should have a good impression of Vietnam," said Huong who has won five gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games and a silver and a bronze medals at the Asian Games. "As an athlete I would have loved to have the Asian Games in Vietnam, but our current conditions do not allow that."
Vietnam's state-controlled media praised the move.
"A decision that wins the heart of the people," was the front page headline of the widely read Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
But Hoang Vinh Giang, deputy chairman of Vietnam Olympic Committee, was unhappy.
"It's very regretted that Vietnam has withdrawn from hosting the games," Giang told the AP. "This is a very good opportunity. I don't know when Vietnam will have another chance to host."
The Asian Games features similar events to the Summer Olympics but also include sports popular in Asia. More than 40 nations take part.
Associated Press reporter C. Rajshekhar Rao in New Delhi contributed to this report.