The SEA Games open Thursday in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, after a six-month COVID-related delay, with Southeast Asian pride at stake in everything from football to bodybuilding and esports.
More than 5,000 athletes, including Olympic champions, compete for more than 500 gold medals at the event, which takes place every two years, in arenas that are expected to be packed.
The 11-nation Games include traditional Olympic sports such as athletics, swimming and boxing, but also regional sports like sepak takraw, a tense volleyball-style game where teams hit a rattan ball.
Among the top athletes on display are Thai taekwondo world number one Panipak Wongpattanakit and Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who both won gold at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won the city-state’s historic first Olympic gold medal in 2016, is juggling national military service and participation and hoping to regain his scintillating form of the past.
Host nations typically include sports in which they perform well, which helps them land many gold medals, but leads to criticism that this hurts the prestige of the competition.
However, with 40 sports in this edition, compared to 56 in Manila in 2019, Vietnam insists it is looking for “fair games” with little space for local sports.
“The hosts will have to fight as hard as other teams to win gold medals against powerhouses, especially Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,” said deputy head of the Games organizing committee, Tran Duc Phan, on the state-owned Vietnam News.
The organizers still added a local touch.
This 31st edition of the regional spectacular will be the first to feature xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess, which is very popular in the host country.
These Games will also see the return of the Vietnamese martial art vovinam.
Events retained from 2019 include electronic sports, dance sport – a competitive form of ballroom dancing – and the ancient Uzbek wrestling art of kurash.
Malaysia wins its first gold medal
The opening ceremony will take place on Thursday, but some competitions have already started, with Malaysia claiming the first gold medal when diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri triumphed in the women’s one-metre springboard.
These Games were originally scheduled to take place in November but were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With infections down sharply from a peak of more than 200,000 a day in March, spectators at venues – they don’t even have to take a COVID test – will be a contrast to the Tokyo Olympics, for the most part. without fans, from last year.
It was only last week that the 2022 Asian Games were postponed due to the virus. The Olympic-sized multi-sport showpiece was due to take place in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September.
The SEA Games are centered in Hanoi with action also taking place in 11 neighboring northern provinces.
It is Vietnam’s second time hosting the Games – the 2003 edition was hosted by Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – and some 2,000 banners were placed around Hanoi for Thursday’s opening ceremony at the stadium My Dinh.
Local media said thousands of people lined up overnight to buy tickets for football matches featuring the Vietnam team.
Some locals view the Games as a sign that life is returning to normal.
“We went through a huge COVID pandemic,” said Nguyen Bich Ngoc, a 25-year-old Hanoi resident.
“Our government has put a lot of effort into organizing these SEA Games for our country and Southeast Asia.”