SEA Games showcase region's rapid growth

SINGAPORE - The 28th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) begins in Singapore next week, an event that promises to showcase the region's spectacular economic growth as much as the athletes and their competitions.

Like all regional multi-sports events, the SEA Games struggles for mainstream recognition outside its own borders, but for the 11 competing countries, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Around 7,000 athletes will flock to the tiny city-state for the June 5-16 event, competing in 36 different sports for more than 400 gold medals.

From humble beginnings in 1959, the SEA Games has steadily grown into Southeast Asia's biggest multi-sports event, mirroring the region's increasing financial muscle.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the host-city Singapore. Once a sleepy British colonial outpost, the Lion City has been transformed into a global financial powerhouse and home to many of the world's mega-rich.

Singapore asked to host the SEA Games this year as part of its 50th anniversary of independence from Malaysia, a year-long celebration which has taken on added poignancy following the death in March of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Most of the events will be held at the new $1 billion Sports Hub, which features a 55,000-seat national stadium that opened last year.

Local officials are also using many venues that were built for the 2010 Youth Olympics, keeping costs down so they can run everything on a budget of $324.5 million.

Rather than build an athlete's village, competitors will be housed in downtown hotels. In a country where income tax is low and crime rare, there are few concerns about crowd disturbances, although police said there would be a big security presence.

For spectators, most events will be free to watch while tickets for high-profile sports such as swimming sold out quickly.


For the competitors themselves, the biennial SEA games are like a mini-Olympics, bringing enormous pride to the competing nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and East Timor.

Most of the sports are on the Olympic programme but organisers also offer traditional events that keep faith with the region's eclectic cultural mix, such pencak silat, sepak takraw and dragon boat racing.

Although the various teams boast a number of world class competitors in almost all of the disciplines, particularly badminton, SEA countries generally excel in non-Olympic and combat sports.

Thailand is the most successful nation, winning a combined total of 1,994 gold medals over the 27 completed editions of the Games.

Most of the competing countries have offered some sort of cash incentive for any athlete who wins a gold medal and hired foreign coaches to give them the best chance of success.

Of all the athletes at the Games, few will be under more pressure to succeed that Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling.

Just 19, Schooling has become his country's big hope for next year's Rio Olympics after winning a silver medal at last year's Commonwealth Games and a gold at the Asian Games.

He has already won seven SEA Games gold medals from his two previous appearances but is going for an unprecedented nine in his home city this time.

For Singapore's new head swimming coach, former Spanish Olympian Sergio Lopez, Schooling's profile and ambitions sum up the significance of the event, which officially runs from June 5-16, but will kick off on Friday with preliminary rounds of men's football.

"We're here to win. If you don't win, you give your 100 per cent, you might cry for five minutes, but you have to stand up and keep moving forward," Lopez told Reuters.

"I know swimming has been a big sport in the Southeast Asian environment for Singapore bringing in medals. But for me, I need to change the mindset... why can't we be one of the best smallest nations in the world? We need to think that way."