Sports unity among countries in Southeast Asian countries began in 1958 when six countries banded together to form the South East Asian Peninsular Games or SEAP Games.
These founding countries agreed to hold multi-sports event competitions every two years with the aim of fostering cooperation, understanding, and relations in the region through sports.
The first SEAP Games were held in Bangkok in December 1959.
In 1975, three more countries were included in the Philippines. Two years after, nine countries began competing for honors and the group assumed the new name—Southeast Asian Games Federation.
Now it has 11 members, including the most recent addition in East Timor which was admitted in 2003.
While the SEA Games has established itself as among the premier sports cooperation in the region, it has become more competitive to the point where sportsmanship has to take the sideline as host countries are given more flexibility to the rules of the Games to favor its chances for the overall championship.
It has become a trend in recent years where the host country bags the overall championship and the rest grapple for 2nd place down the line.
Consider: the host can add a number of indigenous sports that could boost its medal chances.
The Philippines relied heavily on Filipino martial arts sports of arnis, almost sweeping all the medals at stake, on the way to winning the 2019 SEA Games overall championship.
Vietnam included Vovinam, a mixed martial arts sport founded in Vietnam, and nearly swept the golds.
In the coming SEA Games to be hosted by Cambodia in May, its local martial art Kun Bokator will be introduced and has been going rounds in the region to attract participation.
Of course, there’s no need to tell that Cambodia will dominate the sport and rake in gold medals.
“Frankly, kinakabahan ako because of the formula na ginawa ng host country,” said Philippine Olympic Committee honcho Bambol Tolentino.
Tolentino is referring to Cambodia’s decision to include events that are practically alien to the other countries and exclude events where Cambodians have slim chances of winning.
Cambodia has also “re-introduced” a cap in some events where the host can participate in all events while putting limited participation to the rest of the member countries.
The same was done by Malaysia in the 2017 KL SEA Games.
For a country of fewer than 17 million people, Cambodia has lined up 608 events in 49 sports, far bigger than the 530 events in 56 sports in the Manila edition in 2019 and the 526 events in 40 sports in Hanoi last year.
Cambodia may be hard-pressed to win overall against powerhouse countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, but it certainly aims to be among the leaderboard.
Cambodia is not to be blamed, however. It has long been a practice in the SEA Games where a host country is allowed to draw up policies that will help its bid for glory.
It’s difficult for the next host not to do the same because the government spends millions of dollars for hosting and putting up the infrastructure. The government and the people at least want to see their athletes up there on the podium as a return on investment.
There’s no end in sight to this cycle. As of now, it is an accepted practice and reality that member countries have to put up every two years of competition.
Meanwhile, the athletes are sent to battle to provide the drama in the sports arena–the joy of victory and agony in defeat.