After a gap of 44 years, the biennial SEA Games returns to Myanmar. Before its name change from Burma, the country hosted Asia’s second biggest multi-discipline event twice, in 1961 and 1969 at the then capital of Rangoon.
Now in the midst of a globally acknowledged transition from a reclusive military regime to a phased democratisation, Myanmar is presenting the 27th edition of the Games as a symbol of positive socio-political change.
Myanmar’s new captial Naypidaw is all decked up for Wednesday’s grand opening ceremony at the Wunna Theikdi Indoor Stadium, where the country’s President Thein Sein will officially declare open the region’s top sports event, offering a total of 1,557 medals including 460 gold and as many silver medals in 33 disciplines.
A spectacular closing ceremony involving all 10 ASEAN members plus East Timor represented is scheduled for December 22 at the same venue.
While Naypidaw is the main hub, Yangon, Mandalay and Ngweaung Beach will serve as other competition venues for up to 6,000 participants and officials visiting a country that was virtually an international outcast until as recently as five years ago.
In Myanmar, owls are regarded as lucky charms and so it comes as no surprise that the official mascot for the 2013 Games is a pair of the nocturnal predators – Shew Yoe and his female companion Ma Moe.
Sport selection under fire
While the region and the rest of the world are hailing the Games as a triumph for Myanmar and its people, they are not entirely free from criticism and controversy. Inclusion of chinlone, an indigenous sport is not sitting well with many nations and exclusion of Olympic disciplines like tennis and gymnastics has infuriated quite a few.
Cambodia, however, seem to have benefited from chinlone as a medal sport with the Kingdom raking in a haul of two silvers and four bronzes.
On Sunday, Cambodian teams in both the men’s and women’s non-repetitive secondary level events finished distant fourths behind Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to receive bronzes by default.
The addition of sittuyin, a form of traditional Burmese chess not so familiar in other member countries, has also been decried as an attempt by Myanmar to boost its gold medal prospects.
One notable member of the Games forum taking strong objections to Myanmar dropping Olympic disciplines and adding non-Olympic events that suit the host is the Philippines, which has sent its smallest delegation in 14 years.
Cambodia aim for more
Despite some reservations about the choice and the number of disciplines, Cambodia has arrived with its biggest ever contingent of 285 in the hope of at least doubling its four-gold medal tally from the 2011 Games in Indonesia and raking in more silver and bronze medals than they managed in Jakarta and Palembang.
Since the inception of the SEA Games in 1959, Cambodia’s all time gold total stands at just 11 with 26 silver medals and 104 bronze. Going back to the Peninsular Games era, Cambodia’s record was 27 golds, 46 silver and 41 bronze medals.
Cambodia will be seeking to safeguard its 2011 gold haul from petanque, kempo and vovinam, disciplines where the country also missed out on a few more.
While Cambodia picked up a couple of silver medals on the mat in the previous edition, the country will be hoping that wrestlers this time around can scoop a gold or two.
Optimism is very high in the sepak takraw camp and Cambodia’s judo and taekwondo exponents are hoping to build on their previous performances and turn them into medals.
Cambodian boat racers are confident of picking at least one or two medals. The boxing ring could provide the country some solace since a couple of the boxers have shown great improvements and are capable of matching fists with any in the region.
On Sunday, though, all three of the Cambodians in action were beaten in the ring. Long Lamda lost on points in each of his three rounds against Thailand’s Donchai Thathi in their 56kg contest. Svay Ratha suffered the same fate in his 64kg match up with Filipino Dennis Galvan.
Thai 69kg fighter Apichet Saenset inflicted a technical knockout on Srun Pisey in the first round. Three more Cambodian men will vie for boxing glory beginning on Wednesday.
Hopes in equestrian debut
Cambodian horse riders make a historic return to international competition for the first time since the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The six-member equestrian team raised medal hopes after performing creditably in Malaysia where five of the members earned podium placings at the Selangor Turf Club Horse Show, competing against the best of the local riders.
Coach Kathy Lovatt, who is accompanying the team is confident that if Cambodian riders perform to the level they did in Malaysia, a medal or two should be well within their reach.
“Our boys have been training very hard. They will have to perform on borrowed horses – we couldn’t take our own. But that should not be a problem. They have got used to it by now and while training, they always switch horses to simulate these conditions,” Lovatt told the Post before leaving for Myanmar.
Cambodian Equestrian Federation secretary-general Mona Tep said the community was excited that after 57 years, a Cambodian equestrian team had gone out of the country for a major competition.
“A medal or two will make this mission a memorable one for us and the country,” added Tep, who will be attending Wednesday’s opening ceremony.
Cambodia’s poor record in team competitions continues to be a source of concern for the National Olympic Committee. The country’s footballers were off to a losing start a few days ago, beaten fairly and squarely by the hosts Myanmar.
Cambodian basketball is presenting a much healthier and better look than the Indonesian edition.
Seven foreign-based Cambodian nationals and four local players picked from the recently held Cambodian Basketball League, make up the national team presently in Myanmar.
Led by Hem Syhout, the team is coached by Nigerian Austin Koledoye and his assistant Kao Kannaly.
Overseas players joining the squad are Patof Khvan and Sak Ratana from Canada, Dominic Dar and Ouch Phanat from the United States, and Tait Sophea from Australia. Thach Boroth from Sweden and Stefan Doll-Therro Sao from Austria were part of the 2011 squad in Indonesia.
The five Cambodian players in the roster are Sovann Panha, Sok Tour, Kim Ran, Sok Samnang and Pheng Dara.
Coach Koledoyo is confident that the team is in a much better position to improve upon a seventh place finish in Indonesia two years ago.
Their opening game of the seven-team round robin stage on Sunday saw them beat hosts Myanmar 75-60. In yesterday’s game against Malaysia, also at Naypyidaw’s Zayar Thiri Indoor Stadium, the Cambodians squandered a slender first quarter lead to lose 73-58.
They now face the intimidating force of the Philippines at 12:30pm today, a team that has won all but one of the 16 SEA Games basketball competitions.
Meanwhile, NOCC secretary-general and adviser to the Ministry of Tourism Vath Chamroeun told the Post that the Cambodian contingent has had the best preparations possible.
Before taking off for the Myanmar capital on Sunday morning, Vath Chamroeun expressed the hope that the biggest squad ever sent to the SEA Games will meet the 10-gold target that the NOCC had in its sights.
“I feel that our chances of winning more gold medals this time are much brighter than at any time in the past. Overall I am confident that we can improve our medals tally,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAN RILEY AND CHHORN NORN