As several members of the Asean community raised the spectre of host nations enjoying unfair advantage by changing, chopping and introducing events to serve their own strengths, Malaysia’s phenomenal success in the just-concluded 29th SEA Games may drive the debate over tailored programmes in a totally different direction.
It is a well-known secret that that the host nations of the biennial Games are bestowed with a degree of latitude in the choice of events that can give the hosts a distinct edge in medal counts.
It is no wonder then that seven of the 10 hosts of the Games over the past two decades have done remarkably better at home than when they were away, with a few exceptions.
While Myanmar set a dubious benchmark by dropping such popular disciplines as tennis and wrestling four years ago, other host countries have also been guilty of somewhat similar machinations, either by bringing in events they are good at or discarding ones their main adversaries excel in.
But how does this “host to win” phenomenon stack up in real terms? Can a few alterations in the programme ensure big successes without skill and preparation?
The answer has to be an emphatic “no”, if Malaysia’s phenomenal success is any guide.
If there were so many critical voices raised over Malaysia gaining an unfair advantage then why wasn’t there even one formal complaint from any of the other 10 nations?
Was KL2017 a complete success? No – the Games had its share of controversies, shortcomings, lows and highs, not to mention several instances of judging bias in favour of local athletes.
But overall, Malaysia’s gold rush was the direct outcome of a two-year grand plan, under which the athletes who competed had the best training and preparation that most other squads simply could not match.
It was in 2015 when the Malaysian government launched the “Kita Juara” (“We are Champions”) programme, roping in the talented and very best athletes from across 38 disciplines for nearly a year of intensive training and another of extensive competition.
Cambodia hosts in 2023
The programme’s overwhelming success can be gauged by the fact that half of Malaysia’s huge contingent of 800-plus athletes were SEA Games debutants who can now go on to build the future.
This is where Cambodia can learn an important lesson from its mission in Kuala Lumpur. With six years to go until Cambodia’s 2023 debut as hosts, early preparation could well be the key to the success the Kingdom is so keenly aiming for.
As the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia’s adviser and press attaché at the Games, Ken Gaddafi, pointed out, Malaysia topped the table mainly because they had athletes competing in virtually all of the 38 disciplines.
“As hosts, Cambodia will be required to field large number of athletes. We had 179 [athletes in Kuala Lumpur], but we may have to go five times higher when we host the Games,” Gaddafi said.
Summing up Cambodia’s campaign, the NOCC adviser said the squad was greatly affected by transport issues when getting to either training or competition. He also felt that the mobility and eating patterns of the athletes were somewhat disturbed by staying in a hotel instead of a traditional Games village, which normally provides smooth operations.
One notable element that seemingly impacted some Cambodian athletes was the lack of the opportunity to train at the venues before the competition, as most of them arrived on the eve of their events and went into action straight away.
In terms of the medals won, NOCC Secretary-General Vath Chamroeun characterised the squad’s haul of three golds, two silver and 12 bronze medals as a modest success, though the sights had been set higher.
“Considering that our most potential medal winners have come from wrestling, [Vietnamese martial art] vovinam and [Japanese martial art] shorinji kempo, and these events had not been there in the last two games, I feel we have done our best.
“I wish we could have won a couple of more golds from muay, where our fighters did extremely well,” he said.
While Malaysia celebrated KL2017 by declaring a public holiday on September 4 to mark its all-time high medal count, the Philippines returned home with their lowest gold medal tally since 1991, depressed but determined to improve on their performance before the Manila SEA Games in 2019.