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Hosting the SEA Games: is the juice still worth the squeeze?

  • The Southeast Asian Games takes place every two years with hosting duties rotating around most of the 11 countries in the Asean community
  • It gives these countries the responsibility of providing infrastructure needed to stage sporting events 
  • But with economic rewards uncertain, it can be tricky for the smaller nations in the region to host

The Southeast Asian (SEA) Games does not often make headlines outside the region but it rivals better-known multi-sport events in terms of size, breadth and scope. As it continues to expand, its effect on the sporting landscape in Southeast Asia should also increase.

The 2019 edition – the 30th in its history – starts on 30 November in the Philippines. Taking place every two years, hosting duties rotate around most of the 11 countries in the Asean community. Nine have staged the event: Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Only Cambodia and East Timor have yet to do so, though the former will get its first taste in 2023.

It gives these countries a chance to stage a major event and the responsibility of providing the infrastructure needed to stage – in the case of the Philippines – over 50 sporting events. It is, in short, a regional Olympics.

The games also give countries that have little Olympic impact the chance of some glory. Malaysia, for example, won just one gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016, but 145 at the SEA Games it hosted a year later.

No wonder politicians appreciate the feel-good factor that the event can create.

“Government support of the athletes and their preparation will be up there with the preparation for any other major multi-sport games such as the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics,” Jonathan Leow, head of public relations for Singapore 2015, tells SportBusiness.

“For many of the smaller countries, this is their one shot at getting medals at a multi-sport event, so it is pretty big. Many use this as a rallying call for national pride.”

National not regional focus

It is the same when it comes to selling the games. The trend has been for host nations to market the competition less as a regional event but to concentrate on the domestic scene. “For Singapore, the messaging was more of a national one and is similar to what Malaysia pushed in 2017,” says Leow.

Two years ago, the Malaysian focus was on its capital. “The Kuala Lumpur 2017 SEA Games was very Kuala Lumpur-centric and as such the buzz was only felt in the capital city,” says Haresh Deol, former editor of the Malay Mail.

Hosting the SEA Games may be good for a country’s standing at home but it can damage regional reputations. There are usually controversies and it is striking that, apart from the hosts with small populations such as Laos or Singapore, the country that stages the event usually wins the most medals.

There were several issues in 2017, such as mixing up the flags of the visiting nations – the Indonesian flag was infamously shown upside down in an official magazine – and switching venues at the last minute.

“Although Malaysia were crowned the overall champion,” adds Deol. “There were many mistakes that left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, even leaving observers wondering if we are truly prepared to host another multi-sports competition.”

Benefits more emotional than economic

Winning gold after gold and seeing talented and dedicated athletes up close can certainly enthuse populations. In 2015 in Singapore, the estimated domestic audience for the opening and closing ceremonies was 3.3 million – almost two thirds of the country’s entire population. It cost S$60.4m (€40.1m/$44.5m) but organisers were at pains to stress that it wasn’t about the money. About half of the events were free to enter as the emphasis was on engagement and inspiration.

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong delivers a speech during the 2015 SEA Games Opening Ceremony at the National Stadium on June 5, 2015 in Singapore. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

“One of the most important priorities at the SEA Games is to stage a good event of high standards that leaves behind a legacy for sports in Singapore,” Lawrence Wong, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said. “Economic impact is not a major consideration for staging the Games, rather, we want it to further catalyse our sporting culture.”

Whether it did or not is open for debate, and economic impact was perhaps not the main driver either for Malaysia. A full report of revenues from the 2017 edition has still not been published though the government set aside $132m (€119.4m) for the event and collected about $25m (€22.6m) in sponsorship.

Perhaps because the marketing and thrust of the games was focused on national pride, tourism in Malaysia did not get the boost it expected or promised. The country saw a three-per-cent fall in the number of foreign tourists that arrived in 2017 when compared to 2016. The majority of arrivals (75.1 per cent) were from the Asean region but even this number was down in 2017, to 19.48 million from 20.3 million the year before.

Challenges with expansion

With the economic rewards uncertain, the continued growth of the event can make it tricky for the smaller nations in the region to host. The Philippines will stage the biggest Southeast Asian Games yet, as it features 56 sports and 530 events in 44 venues across the country. There will be over 7,000 athletes taking part – not much less than the 10,500 who went to Rio for the 2016 Olympics.

It can be a daunting prospect and the Philippines actually stepped in to replace Brunei, which announced it was pulling out of hosting the 2019 edition in 2015. According to the Brunei National Olympic Council vice-president Hj Muhd Zamri Paduka Hj Hamdani, the reason was that the Sultanate just did not have the sports facilities and enough accommodation options to host the expanding tournament.

The flexibility of the games, which allows host nations some discretion as to which sports to include, can be a double-edged sword too. “It can be seen sometimes as a second-class event, especially when each host is allowed to effectively dictate which sports it wants to host,” says Leow. “That makes the brand of the SEA games a little hard to push at times, but when you get Asian Champions in the games in various sports at the top of their game competing, it is pretty easy.”

Going on to greater things

Yet as the games grow, the holy grail of hosting major sporting events – leaving a legacy – should become a little easier.

For the Philippines, the hope is that the SEA Games, and its associated investment in sporting infrastructure, will help take sport in the country to the next level and also pave the way for a possible bid for the Asian Games, the quadrennial event that reaches all corners of the world’s biggest continent, in 2030 or 2034. If you can host such a big SEA Games competently and efficiently, then the Asian Games should not be a problem.

Fireworks illuminate the sky during the Closing Ceremony of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games at Wunna Theikdi Stadium on December 22, 2013 in Nay Pyi Taw, Burma. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

“We are not doing a SEA Games level of organizing the events, we are doing it as Asian Games level. The return of investment will come within 20 years and that will benefit the local people, national athletes, commercial areas also,” Ramon Suzara, the chief operating officer of the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee said in August.

Legacies can be nebulous but having clear goals and objectives when preparing to host is usually positive. In Malaysia’s case, it is not clear what the country was looking to achieve by hosting in 2017 aside from a short-term injection of national pride.

“It was just another SEA Games that was quickly forgotten,” argues Deol. “The only multi-sports event that has somewhat left a legacy in Malaysia, despite issues with its accounts as well, was the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.”

Yet Malaysia has also expressed an interest in staging the Asian Games in the not too distant future. “Based on what we witnessed during the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, I do not believe the country is ready to host the Asian Games,” says Deol. “However, many said the same about Indonesia and they managed to host the 2018 Asian Games.”

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