Why can't the SEA Games have a core list of sports?
The SEA Games Federation met recently and the event list for the 2019 Games in the Philippines was announced. At present there are 30 sports scheduled to be contested in Manila. The 2017 Kuala Lumpur edition of the Games featured 38 sports. In the 2011 Games in Jakarta there were 44 sports. The Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) is going to request that more sports be added for 2019, especially those where Malaysia did well during the KL Games. The burgeoning event list for the SEA Games raises two important issues regarding the cost of staging the event and the fairness of creating the sport list to suit the host's strength.
Mohd Nazifuddin Mohd Najib, secretary general of the OCM, stated in a Malaysian Digest article, "The first list is a preliminary list from the hosts but they are expected to include more (events). We will definitely work with NSAs and NSCs to appeal most of the sports we did well in SEA Games." He also noted that the original list did not include badminton but that it was added when objections were heard from several other countries.
There is no 'official' go-to list of sports that Games organizers can use to set their programs. Each Games federation has its own list and their own procedures for modification from one staging to the next. However, it seems that the SEA Games Federation allows hosts to manipulate the program to favor sports in which they hope to medal. In some cases this means including sports few other countries participate in or have even heard of. In the Philippines this includes arnis, a martial art popular in the Philippines but which is not very well known elsewhere.
Controlling the size of the event list has several benefits
I wrote about this once before during the last staging of the games in Kuala Lumpur. That article was a result of competition results in sports I had never heard of. The article asks if the SEA Games program was too big and went on to question the wisdom of including sports that have little participatory traction in the region like sliding sports.
But why should the event list be limited?
First, it makes it easier to attract hosts. No staging of the SEA Games is cheap. Hosts spend incredible amounts to build or upgrade facilities, host visiting teams, create venues, provide security, and carry out the dozens of other necessary tasks. Although there is a certain amount of overhead no matter how many sports are contested, each additional sport brings its own list of related expenses and challenges to the host country. Officially limiting the number of sports could substantially reduce the cost of hosting and make it more attractive to bid for such an event.
Second, it indirectly reduces the cost of sport development within each member country. Many sports in Southeast Asia are government supported. If one of the major multi-sport events had a small sport list it would make it easier for governments to decide which sports to fund. Subsequently, this would make it easier for sport associations and government bodies to create focused development strategies.
Third, a small event list (and one that is not easily changed by hosts) would make the Games a legitimate competitive event. Right now hosts have the leeway to add sports that they believe will increase their medal count and remove those they are not really good at. The political will to change this seems to be lacking though.
Is it fair to add sports you are good at? Or to remove sports you don't play?
The larger question about the SEA Games sport list is philosophical: It it fair to manipulate the program to favor your team? Why does the Federation allow this?
Would it be fair for the home team in basketball to have six players on the court against their opponents five? Obviously not. So why is a host country allowed to manipulate the sport list to cater to its own strengths and weaknesses? It's easy to see how this practice could quickly become ridiculous with local games like baling selipar or other children's games promoted as deeply cultural activities and thus included in the Games event program all in the name of winning medals.
This is not only silly it's also unfair. The original games in 1959 contested only 12 sports. Since then the program has grown. The largest number of sports in a SEA Games program stands at 44 from 2011 in Jakarta. Somewhere between 1959 and today sports were added, presumably because the economies of Southeast Asia strengthened, governments had more money to invest in social wellbeing, and leisure time increased. All key ingredients for sport development on a national scale.
But also somewhere during that period the sports added began to change. Sports unique to certain groups or countries were added because hosts saw them as easy medals. This is why some sports appear periodically whenever a certain country volunteers to host.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its own process for adjusting the event program when they include demonstration sports in the Olympic Games, which are usually added at the request of the hosts or some international federation. But these sports are not part of the core program unless they go through a much longer and pickier evaluation process. In the Olympics, sports come and go but not on the whim of the host.
The SEA Games Federation needs a process like that of the IOC. Reduce the number of core sports to those that all countries can agree on. (I have a feeling that might be far harder than it sounds.) If local sports are still wanted then they should be added as demonstration sports with no medals awarded. This way the SEA Games sport program will be more manageable but as it stands now the process is out of control.
Bill Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chief Information Officer at USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.