SEA Games blasts off with opening ceremony

The opening ceremony of the SEA Games takes place in Nay Pyi Taw today with thousands of athletes, officials and fans from 11 countries showcasing the Games' theme of "Green, Clean and Friendship".

Most of the events in the biennial Games will take place in Myanmar's new capital Nay Pyi Taw, while Yangon, Mandalay and Ngwesaung will host other competitions including water sports and sailing from tomorrow to December 22.

Myanmar is keenly looking forward to being host again after 44 years out of the limelight. The previous times they hosted the event - in 1961 and 1969 - it was called the South East Asian Peninsular Games. This time, 460 gold, 460 silver and 637 bronze medals from 34 sports - fewer than in the previous edition in Indonesia - will be up for grabs. Athletics contributes the most with 46 gold medals.

A few months ago, participating countries failed in a bid to get Myanmar to reconsider its decision to exclude sports such as tennis, gymnastics, beach volleyball and dance, which figure in Olympics. The hosts' inclusion of their traditional sports such as Chinlone, Vovinam and Kempo is seen as an effort to boost their gold-medal chances and became a talking point ahead of the Games.

After the reduction in Olympic sports, the Philippines decided to send only 208 athletes, its smallest delegation since the 1999 Brunei Games.

Thailand is sending 1,021 athletes and officials to Myanmar. Among the strong Thai squad is HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana. The Princess, who represented Thailand in badminton in the 2005 SEA Games, will compete in the equestrian tournament this time.

Maj-Gen Charouck Arirachakaran, secretary-general of the Olympic Committee of Thailand, is confident the country will reach its target of 100 gold medals. The representatives of various sports associations put the figure at 112 gold medals.

Thai athletes are expected to dominate events they fared well in at previous editions, including athletics, volleyball, sailing, and sepak takraw. The Thai men's and women's football teams failed to win golds in the previous two Games, but this time the Football Association hopes to sweep all four, including the men's and women's futsal. Thai FA chief Worawi Makudi has promised to present Bt1 million to any Thai football team that wins gold.

Hosts Myanmar captured the Games' first two golds from Chinlone, a traditional Myanmar sport, while Thailand men's and women's Chinlone teams claimed gold medals in the Same Strokes event last Thursday.

At press time, Myanmar lead the medal tally with 11 gold, two silver and three bronze medals. Indonesia were second with four golds, while Malaysia are in third with three golds, and Thailand in fourth with two golds, 4 silvers and one bronze.

The Games opening ceremony takes place today at the Wunna Theikdi Stadium, with Myanmar President Thein Sein presiding over the colourful event.

Hosts Indonesia were crowned the overall champions in the previous Games two years ago with 182 golds, followed by Thailand (109 golds), and Vietnam (96).