By the time you read this, the latest Southeast Asian Games will be in full swing.
For those unfamiliar with the event, some background: The Games take place every two years, with hosting duties rotated between most of the 11 countries in the Association of South East Nations (Asean) community. While it doesn’t often make headlines outside the region, it does rival better-known multi-sport events in terms of size, breadth and scope. Essentially, it’s a regional Olympics.
Questions have often arisen about the Games’ continued relevance, especially when factoring in the cost of hosting for smaller nations and the controversies that tend to drive wedges in Asean unity, rather than celebrate it.
At Malaysia’s 2017 edition, the Indonesian flag was infamously shown upside down in an official magazine, while judging results favoured the host and left its neighbours crying foul.
While the integration of the Asean regional economy has increased, geopolitical bickering has still broken out in the last decade, be it between Singapore and Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, or China and everyone.
As Dr Pattharapong Rattanasevee, of Burapha University in Thailand, notes, the nations of Southeast Asia “have more or less seen the others as rivals, with national interests and nationalist sentiment coming before understanding and friendly relationships with neighbouring countries.”
With so many tensions buried shallowly at best, the need for the SEA Games to foster a spirit of understanding and friendship continues.
Beyond its importance for cementing geopolitical unity, most of the region’s national sport administrators use the competition as a yardstick for development and funding budgets for different sports and federations. It’s also used as a platform for the more successful sporting nations to groom young talent, with football in the Games confined to under-23 teams a good example of the competition’s focus on youth.
And while it’s true that host countries do include too many traditional events to ensure they win more medals (the SEA Games charter allows the host to decide which sports are in and which are out), most sports are either Olympic, Commonwealth or Asian Games events.
The SEA Games also provides a training ground for its host nations in media, marketing, technology, sponsorship, merchandising and security. These are all key elements in building a sporting economy and culture, something most Asean sports administrators believe is lacking to grow the talent needed to be competitive in world sport.
As it stands, a common issue faced by all Asean national sporting bodies is greater interest in European and American sport franchises, like the English Premier League and the NBA, over locally organised and sanctioned competitions. For these sporting bodies, the SEA Games is an opportunity to drum up local interest in domestic athletes every two years.
Taking this all into account, it’s clear – to this writer at least – that the SEA Games retains an important role in the region’s sporting and political sphere.