The 32nd Southeast Asian Games, or SEA Games, are set to begin in Phnom Penh, Cambodia later this month. The popular event dates back to the first Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1959, one of the earliest areas of cooperation in the region. As the region’s premier sporting event, held every two years, the SEA Games has attracted a range of criticism and controversy over the years, particularly its reputation as a gold-medal mine for host nations.
At one level, the SEA Games is an institutionalized sporting competition held under the regulations of the Southeast Asian Games Federation and supervised by the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Council of Asia. However, the Games also differ markedly from other sporting events, particularly in terms of certain rules and norms that favor host nations. That is, although the federation charter indicates that every SEA Games shall consist of a minimum of 22 sports, there is no limit to the number of events. This means that the host country is free to drop an existing sport, no matter how globally popular it is, or introduce a new one, no matter how parochial it is. (The charter states that priority or preference should be given to those sports that are already included in Olympic Games and Asian Games). Furthermore, the host nation is also free to allocate a number of medals to the list of sports in the contest. These norms have often been exploited by host nations to help them win more medals.
Using such strategies to maximize the medal tally for the host country has been a major problem for almost every SEA Games in recent years. For example, the 2011 games hosted by Indonesia saw the first appearance of roller skating – an event in which Indonesia swept all 12 gold medals – plus many other non-Olympic sports, which saw the host become overall winners with 182 gold medals (compared to just 64 and 47 in the in 2013 and 2015 SEA Games, respectively).
Similarly, in the 2013 Games, Myanmar won six out of eight gold medals in its indigenous sport chinlone, which was new to that year’s Games. In the 2017 SEA Games hosted by Malaysia, eight athletic events, including the men’s and women’s marathons, were excluded from the provisional list as the host nation had little chance of winning and indeed, had never won medals in these sports at any previous SEA Games.
Aside from the manipulation of events by host countries, other problems reported relate to wrongful judging, match-fixing, bribes relating to tenders for building sports facilities, and the disrespectful behavior of athletes, such as jeering and spitting at opponents.
In terms of controversies, the forthcoming SEA Games in Cambodia are no different. Hosting the Games for the first time, the Cambodian government has aimed to use the event to boost the country’s international profile and national pride, and to showcase its rapid development in recent years. Among the 37 sports, Cambodia has decided to include its three indigenous sports: Ouk Chaktrang (chess), and the two martial arts Bokator and Kun Khmer. The controversy ignited when Cambodia officially introduced the Cambodian term “Kun Khmer” to replace the popular Thai term “Muay Thai” for a kickboxing event. Consequently, Thailand has already expressed its unhappiness, with some even threatening to boycott the games, and it has also resulted in threats of sanctions by the International Federation of Muaythai Associations.
The high price of broadcast rights set by the Cambodian organizers is another controversial issue, as Thailand was reportedly asked to pay $800,000 for the rights. Traditionally, SEA Games host nations charge only a token fee for live broadcast rights but the amount is clearly much higher compared to previous events ($5,000 for the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines and $10,000 for the 31st SEA Games in Vietnam). Later, after Thai sports authorities indicated that they might not want to pay the excessive fee, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen retreated and announced that Cambodia would not charge fees for foreign broadcasting rights.
Furthermore, Cambodia has limited the number of athletes who can participate in certain sports (martial arts, dragon boat, and e-sports) while such restriction is not applied to the host country. It also plans to allow a maximum of only two gold medals to be awarded to each competitor in the gymnastics events. These regulations were strongly opposed by the Philippines and other participating nations, who alleged that these were strategies for Cambodia to maximize the medal tally.
For Cambodia, given that a general election is coming up in July, this is a question that seems to have political implications. The government’s decision to give away free tickets for both Cambodians and foreigners and free broadcast rights can be understood as a populist gesture. As Hun Sen stated on March 30, “We have worked so hard for this event, and the money from the ticket sales is not worth it…I could not believe that some officials did not think of this before.”
Aside from the state of affairs in Cambodian politics, controversies in the SEA Games carry significant implications for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Importantly, it is notable that although the SEA Games do not directly connect to, or sit under the auspices of, ASEAN, both institutions have several characteristics in common. These include favoring informality and consensus over formality and majority rule, and norms that can be seen to privilege national over collective interests. Moreover, nearly all membership and participation of the two institutions have overlapped, with the exception of Timor-Leste, which expects to join ASEAN in the near future. Thus, the two institutions invoke, reinforce and represent one another in this respect.
As the regional sporting community of the SEA Games does not honor principles of fairness and sportsmanship, and its members seem to share the principle that every country will have its turn to benefit from a system that promotes the self-interest of host nations, it risks becoming less competitive, less interesting, and less popular among the public. The greatest losers in this normative framework are not sports officials, journalists, or a general audience but the athletes whose chances of success are structurally weakened. Under the current system, the region’s standards of athletics could be lowered and young athletes discouraged; they might also lose an important stage on which to gauge their capabilities, and build up confidence and experience, before breaking into bigger events.
All in all, the regional sporting community cannot thrive within a regional framework that privileges national interests over fairness and sporting spirit. Indeed, the SEA Games and ASEAN are not only reinforcing but also undermining one another. They both need radical reform.