Is the SEA Games event program too big?

    OK how many of you knew what chinlone was before Malaysia won a gold in it during the SEA Games? I'm guessing not too many, I know I didn't. It's sort of like petanque in that it's a sport (game?) that most people have never heard of. If you say "I'm petanqueing on Saturday, wanna come?" or "I have extra tickets to the chinlone tournament, need one?" you will be looked at oddly.

    Chinlone is a cultural game from Myanmar that was showcased in the 2013 SEA Games and added as an official sport in 2015. It's sort of like sepak takraw but with more artistic elements reflecting its early days as an entertainment for Burmese royalty. It's an obscure game to say the least and one wonders how it made its way into the KL 2017 event list.

    But it's not the only sport that seems out of place in the SEA Games. This year there are three sliding sports, ice hockey, figure skating, and short track speed skating in the program. In 2011 contract bridge was contested in Indonesia. Are baling selipar and rock, paper, scissors next?

    The way sports like these get added to the event program is a peculiarity of Federation rules: Hosts have the discretion to add or remove events from the official program and it has been standard practice to add events where hosts believe they have medal opportunities. Chinlone, for example, was showcased by Myanmar in 2013 and added to the official program in Singapore for the 2015 Games. While this practice may have begun as an attempt to showcase traditional or cultural activities common to the region is has morphed into something that allows hosts to "gerrymander' their way to victory, as another writer has said.

    Hosts can also remove events from the lineup although Malaysia found out that this is not so easy to do after they provisionally cut the marathon and the decathlon from the 2017 program. The IAAF said they would refuse to sanction the athletics portion of the Games if these two events were not added back to the program.

    While the fairness of such a practice raises ethical questions the objective problem is that this allows the Games program to balloon out of control. 38 sports with 404 separate events are being contested in Kuala Lumpur this year. In 1959 the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, as they were originally called, had only 12 sports. This number gradually grew with the trend over the last several stagings being somewhere in the mid-thirties. The most recent low was in Vientiane (2009) with 29 sports and the high in Jakarta (2011) with 44 sports. Interestingly, the International Olympic Committee limits the Olympic summer program to only 28 sports.

    No one is saying, at least out loud, that the future of the Games is in question. But it has to be on the minds of some smaller Southeast Asian countries. The 11 countries that participate in the Games share hosting duties on a rotational basis although countries have the option to pass their 'turn' for various reasons. There is already evidence that the financial and logistical strain on hosts is taking its toll. The Philippines announced recently that they would pass on the 2019 Games for which they volunteered after Brunei declined their turn in the rotation. Later they reversed themselves and said they would host after all. In 2009 Laos was only able to stage the Games with the help of other countries, mainly China who doesn't even compete in them.

    The four countries with the strongest regional economies -- Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia -- have more resources and infrastructure available to host large events but even these countries have limits on finances and the administrative and logistical overhead needed for events like this.

    If the SEA Games program were less ambitious, contesting fewer sports and focusing on those that Southeast Asians are more likely to participate in, then more countries might be interested in hosting.

    The Southeast Asian Games Federation should reign in the current bloated program. Any sober examination of the current lineup would suggest that it is too big. Limits need to be set on the number of sports allowed in the Games and changes to the sports contested need to be made by the Federation, not individual hosts, long before each staging of the event.

    The speech given by Minister Khairy Jamaluddin during the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Kuala Lumpur Games highlighted why sport is not only important to regional relations but why it is vital to the human spirit. We need to be reminded of this periodically and we need to make sure that the institutions that safeguard the spirit and practice of sport are preserved and working for the good of all.

    --------
    Bill Price (price@ussa-my.com) is the Chief Information Officer at USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. He participated in the 1985 SEA Games in Bangkok as a swimming coach for Brunei.

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