Friendship before competition.
This has always been the bond that kept the Southeast Asian Games alive the past 58 years since the biennial aggrupation came into being as the original Southeast Asia Peninsular Games in 1959. This, too, has enabled the mere seven-nation conclave to grow to what is now an 11-country organization.
While one of the main purposes of the group is to develop the member countries’ athletes at par with their counterparts, not only in Asia but in the world as well, the original members Myanmar (then Burma), Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand, saw it fit that the spirit of friendship would remain a primary concern. Even with the inclusion of the Philippine, Indonesia, Brunei and Timor-Leste into the roster later on.
Reason why the once every-two-year hostilities among the best and finest athletes in the region is sometimes called “The Family Games” to further emphasize the ideals for which organization was founded – unity and solidarity.
Reason, too, and this is the most misunderstood by those not privy to the ins and outs or the organization, why events contested in the calendar would include indigenous sports known and played only in the host country.
Those not in the know, including media, interpret this as a hometown advantage and is a major factor in the performance of the host country’s campaigners. It is, indeed. It’s no surprise that the only overall championships won by the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam came when they hosted the Games.
Then there’s this what many believe a conspiracy theory to create an edge over other countries, including cunning backroom maneuvering.
Take for instance, this year’s 29th edition of the Games in Malaysia. The host organizers had eliminated women’s weightlifting, two divisions in men’s boxing, the entire women’s boxing program, softball for men and women.
As a result, Filipino Rio Olympics silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz and four-time SEA Games boxing gold medalist Josie Gabuco not to be able to compete.
Also in boxing, the Malaysian hosts brought down the events from 11 divisions to only six. Competitions in the lightweight and welterweight divisions were done with, forcing the Alliance of Boxing Associations of the Philippines to reshuffle fighters and readjust to the available divisions.
Charlie Suarez, who fought as a lightweight two years ago and won the gold medal, was elevated to light-welterweight and will go home with only a bronze.
Malaysia, likewise, set the age to qualify in gymnastics at 18 instead of the Olympic standard 16. That disqualified the Philippines’ 17-year-old Caloy Yulo who would’ve been a shoo-in for the gold in his event. The Philippines’ request to apply the Olympic rule was thrown into the wastebasket.
Another request of the Philippine delegation to allow sprinter Eric Cray more recovery time in between the100-meter and 400-meter hurdles races where he was the defending champion was also denied.
The Fil-American, running in the finals in the span of one-hour, successfully kept his hurdles title but lost his crown as the Games’ Fastest Man.
To many, the SEA Games’ hosts are notorious for manipulating the sports calendar to raise their chances of victory often at the expense of the Olympic spirit. When Myanmar hosted in 2013, the Games’ organizers scrapped tennis and gymnastics but included kenpo, vovinam and chilone.
In 2015 in Singapore, weightlifting was a no-no and floorball made it in the program. In 2011, Indonesia brought in wall climbing, roller sport, bridge and paragliding. This year Malaysia inserted winter sports even as there is no country in the region that snows.
What is surprising though is those affected never complained. Reduced to merely requesting for reconsideration. There have been protests, here and there. Yew, but only on glaring violations of the rules of the games.
Not on the manner as to keep the strong ideals of unity and solidarity that make every celebration of the Games worth the experience. The spirit of sportsmanship and deeper friendship that make every participant return home winners, bringing gold medals of wisdom gained about themselves and their Southeast Asian neighbors.