SEA Games game changer

Many would insist that SEA Games achievements do not count, given the fact that the regional sporting meet now tends to serve as a medium to boost national pride for a host country.


Indonesia's Witan Sulaeman (left) fights for the ball with Malaysia's Harith Haiqal bin Adam Afkar in the men's soccer bronze medal match between Indonesia and Malaysia during the 31st Southeast Asian SEA) Games in Hanoi on May 22, 2022. (AFP/Ye Aung Thu)

May 15, 2023

JAKARTA – ASEAN leaders convened in the East Nusa Tenggara tourist resort of Labuan Bajo for the 42nd summit as the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Phnom Penh moved up a gear this week. But sports development, in particular the biennial SEA Games, did not seem to attract their attention despite the proven contribution of sports to the region’s quest to build a socio-cultural community.

The SEA Games became a talking point, albeit peripherally, only when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen held bilateral talks on the sidelines of the summit. Hun Sen, whose country is taking its turn in hosting the SEA Games, apologized to Jokowi for the Indonesian flag mishap that marred the opening ceremony of the sporting event on May 5. During a musical performance just before the opening ceremony, the Indonesian flags were held upside-down by the dancers.

After a week of competition, the fight for medals has intensified and more records have been broken, especially in the swimming pool. As of mid-day on Friday, Vietnam led the medal standings with host Cambodia and Thailand trailing closely behind. There are many more medals at stake until the Games reaches its finale on Wednesday.

Indonesia, the largest economy and most populous country in ASEAN, has refrained from setting an ambitious target of winning the SEA Games outside its home turf for the first time since 1993. When receiving the national SEA Games team on May 2, President Jokowi said he would settle for Indonesia finishing second in the medal tally.

Jokowi’s request, however, is already a tall order, as in past SEA Games, except when it played host, Indonesia has usually ranked third, fourth and even fifth among the 11 participating nations. In the 2021 edition of the Games in Hanoi, Indonesia came third behind Vietnam and Thailand.

Many would insist that SEA Games achievements do not count given the fact that the regional sporting meet now tends to serve as a medium to boost national pride for a host country. Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia won the SEA Games twice each on home soil, while Thailand and Indonesia are the only nations that have excelled in the event as visitors.

A SEA Games host country is granted the privilege of picking sports that will allow it to win as many medals as possible and remove certain sports that rivals are good at. Perhaps this “ASEAN way” is the recipe for the games’ sustainability. For decades the event has been held every two years consistently, except the 2021 edition, which was postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cambodia took full advantage of its hosting of the SEA Games by choosing its traditional martial arts kun bukator and kun khmer as medal events. This year’s games also saw Cambodia win its first gold medal in pencak silat, an Indonesian martial art, following a deal with Indonesia.

Non Sromoachkhoram presented Cambodia with the historic gold medal without a fight after his Indonesian opponent Bayu Lesmana forfeited the final bout in the U-45 category on Wednesday. Indonesian pencak silat team head Indro Catur said an agreement had been reached among Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to hand the gold medal to the host as appreciation for Cambodia’s approval of pencak silat as a medal event.

Many would regard such a deal as a violation of the Olympic creed of faster, higher, stronger, but for Southeast Asian nations the SEA Games have long played a unifying role. Myanmar has been excluded from the ASEAN summits following the seizure of power by the military, but the SEA Games have kept the door open for it. By comparison the world soccer body FIFA banned Russia from the World Cup last year due to its invasion of Ukraine.

The region, however, should think of a game changer to bring the SEA Games to a higher level, an ideal stepping stone for its athletes to shine in the Asian Games and Olympics, more than just a solidarity forum as it is today.

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