Review of the impacts of the SEA Games

The Southeast Asian (SEA) Games was inaugurated as the Southeast Asia Peninsular (SEAP) Games in Bangkok in 1959 with six founder members, namely, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The 2nd SEAP Games was held in Yangon (then known as Rangoon) in 1959. The 3rd SEAP Games, which was scheduled to be held in Cambodia in 1963, was not held. Kuala Lumpur took over as host of the 3rd SEAP Games in 1965. Since then the SEAP Games has been held uninterrupted until today.

ln 1975, due to circumstances beyond the control of the SEAP Games Federation, only four of the seven member countries attended the 8thSEAP Games held in Bangkok. As the chances of full participation by all the seven member countries at that point of time seemed remote, Malaysia proposed to expand the membership of the Federation to the three other countries in Southeast Asia. lt was envisaged that with the increased participation, there will be increased interest in the Games and its attractiveness would be maintained. The Federation in 1977 approved the proposal.

The three Southeast Asian countries not in the Peninsular, namely Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Philippines were invited and accepted as new members. With this addition in membership, the name of the Federation was changed with the dropping of the word ‘Peninsular’. The lX Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, was organized in Kuala Lumpur in 1977, with seven member countries participating. At the XV SEA Games also held in Kuala Lumpur in 1989, Laos and Vietnam participated again, ending their absence since 1973. Cambodia returned to the fold in 1995 at the XVlll Chiangmai SEA Games.

With the SEA Games coming of age this year as it celebrates its 21st edition, it may be opportune to study its evolution over the last 42 years. and review it s contributions and shortcomings.

Growth of the SEA Games

The main feature of the SEA Games over the past 44 years is its rapid expansion in terms of the number of sports and events in its programme and the increase in number of competitors and officials. At the inaugural Games in 1959, there were six participating countries competing in 12 sports with 653 athletes and officials. The most number of sports and events in the SEA Games was at the 19th SEA Games held in Jakarta in 1997, which had 36 sports with 490 events. The smallest SEA Games in recent years was the 20th SEA Games held in Brunei Darussalam in 1999, with 21 sports and 290 events. For the 21st Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, 2001, there were 32 sports with 391 events. The 22nd Vietnam SEA Games, 2003, had 32 sports with 444 events.

There are far too many events in the SEA Games, when compared to the Asian Games and the Olympic Games. The recently concluded 2004 Athens Olympic Games had 28 sports and 301 events, while the 2002 Busan Asian Games had 38 sports and 427 events. The 2006 Doha Asian Games will have 40 sports and 411 events.

With the increase in the number of sports and events, it is natural to anticipate a corresponding increase in the number of athletes and team officials. In the 1st SEAP Games held in Bangkok in 1959, there were 653 athletes and officials. In the 21st Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, there were 3,456 athletes and in the 22nd SEA Games on Vietnam in 2003, there were 3,726 athletes.

While the increase in the number of athletes is controlled by the technical rules of each sport, unfortunately, the increase in the number of team officials and technical officials is not so well regulated. For example the average ratio of athletes to team officials from ten SEA Games from 1959 to 1979 was 4.2 to 1. Today it is almost 2.5 to 1. In addition, the increase in the number of technical officials, in particular overseas technical officials has been most spectacular. For the 21st SEA Games, the estimated number is around 400. The spectacular and somewhat uncontrolled growth of the SEA Games, especially over the last 15 years, has resulted in the organization of the SEA Games becoming very expensive.

The main items of expenditure of the earlier SEA Games, right up to the eighties, were on the board and lodging and transportation of the athletes and officials and on the running of the sports competitions. These two items took up almost 75% of the total operating cost of the Games. Compared with the SEA Games of the eighties and earlier, the main causes for the large increase in the organizational cost are in the areas of ceremonies, technology and TV broadcasting.

The Opening ceremonies of the earlier Games were rather simple, with the traditional parade of the athletes, followed by the opening match of the Football competition. The Closing ceremonies of the Games were equally simple and cost effective, with the Football final and then the march past of the athletes by sport. The present Opening and Closing ceremonies are more elaborate and equally expensive.

In the earlier Games, the results system was sponsored and the result were disseminated and distributed to the media without any real problems or delay. Today, under the guise of the new technology, the cost for doing the same thing often cost more than the board and lodging cost of the athletes and officials. What is more frustrating s that the cost escalates from one Games to the next, without any clear benefits from the high cost incurred. Another major cause for the increase in the organization cost of the SEA Games is in the areas of TV broadcasting. The high cost for this item is certainly not justified as there is no direct revenue from the sale of TV Rights of the SEA Games.

Sporting Standards

Except for 1963, the SEA Games has been organized uninterrupted biennially since 1959. The Games has also shown spectacular increase both in terms of the number of participants and the organizational cost. Unfortunately, the
improvement of standards of the athletes has not been equally spectacular. Except for the sport of Badminton, which was already world class even before the birth of the SEAP Games in 1959, no other Olympic sport in the SEA Games can claim to be of world standard. However, over the last decade, the standard of Boxing and Women’s Weightlifting in the SEA Games have improved and can now lay claim to being world class with some successes at recent Olympic Games, by the athletes from Thailand.

In spite of the regular and continuous organization of the SEAP/SEA Games over the past 42 years, the standard of sports in the SEA Games has not improved as much or as rapidly when compared with the standard of the Asian Games and the Olympic Games. In the sixties and seventies, athletes and teams from the SEA Games region have been regularly winning medals, including gold medals at the Asian Games in Athletics, Archery, Cycling, Football. Hockey, Swimming, besides in Badminton and Boxing. Since the mid-eighties, the scene has changed drastically. Over the last few Asian Games the successes of SEA Games athletes and teams have dropped drastically. For example, 1970 and 1974 were the last time a SEA Games country won a medal in Football in the Asian Games.

Managerial Skills of Team Officials

The regular organization of the SEA Games has produced efficient and experienced sports managers and administrators, such as Chefs de Missions, Team Managers, Financial Officers, and Secretariat staff. The opportunities provided by the SEA Games to sports officials in the region to gain experience and knowledge in team administration and management is one of the positive impacts of the SEA Games. Managerial skills and competence in areas such as the filling up and submission of entry and accreditation forms, arrangements of the travel and the checking in and checking out of the team members, can only be gained from actual and constant practice. The experience gained from the SEA Games by sports officials of the National Olympic Committees in the region has assisted them in managing their teams and contingents very efficiently in larger Games such as the Asian and the Olympic Games.

Technical Officials

The SEA Games has also provided the opportunities for the Technical Officials in the region to gain more experience and knowledge to be promoted to the ranks of International Technical Officials. ln particular, Technical Officials from the organizing countries of the SEA Games are provided with additional and accelerated training as well as officiating opportunities at international competitions in order to prepare them for hosting the SEA Games. Today, the SEA region can boast of many well-qualified and experienced International Technical Officials in all sports.

Organizational Experience and Expertise

The regular celebrations of the SEA Games have provided the host countries the opportunity to increase their knowledge and competence in the organization of multi-sports Games. Regular and frequent SEA Games host countries, such as Thailand (6 times) and Malaysia (6th time in 2017), has enabled these two countries to organize very successfully the Asian Games on four occasions (1966, 1970, 1078 and 1998), and the 15th Commonwealth Games respectively. The 1998 Bangkok Asian Games and the 15th Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games were universally acknowledged as the best ever Games of their respective series. It is therefore no coincidence that both the above two countries were sufficiently confident to submit their applications to be Candidate Cities of the 2008 Olympic Games. Although they were not short-listed to be Bid Cities, their high quality submissions enhanced the good name and image of the SEA Games region as a whole.

Coaching and Sports Science

The regularity of the SEA Games and the friendly rivalry amongst the competing countries has spurred the establishment of government funded institutes of sports science to aid in the training and preparation of coaches and athletes.

This has to a large extend encouraged long term structured programmes for the training of athletes, instead of the ad hoc training that was in fashion over forty years ago.

However, the improvement in standards of athletes in the SEA countries has not matched the improvements in many other parts of Asia, as measured by performance in the Asian Games. This could be the result of either the other countries having better and more effective scientific training programmes or the efforts of the SEA countries being diluted by the attention given to non -Olympic and non-Asian Games sports in the SEA Games.

Sports Infrastructure Development

The hosting of the SEA Games provides the opportunity and the reason for governments of the host NOC to construct international standard sports facilities. Before the birth of the SEA Games 42 years ago, most of the countries in the SEA region lacked proper sports facilities. The hosting of the SEA Games, by rotation, provided the reason and opportunity for governments hosting the Games to embark on programmes for the development of sports facilities. For example, Kuala Lumpur constructed its first indoor stadium and swimming pool for the 1965 SEA Games, while a new Aquatics Complex, Badminton Stadium and Cycling Velodrome were built for the 1989 SEA Games.

It is therefore not surprising that countries and cities, which have regularly hosted the SEA Games are better endowed with sports facilities when compared with those countries, which have either not hosted or have not recently hosted the SEA Games. The hosts of the SEA Games up to 1985, were fortunate that the number of sports in the programme was restricted to a maximum of 18. The relatively small programme allowed the host countries to develop their sports complexes in phases, increasing the number of facilities and upgrading existing ones from one Games to the next, within the time frame of about ten years.

Unfortunately, the large number of sports in the programme in the present day’s SEA Games does not allow the new host countries or cities, the luxury of phased development of their sports facilities. This perhaps, is one of the main reason that some countries are unable to host the SEA Games.

Improvement in Sports Industries

The SEA Games has also spawned quite a few sports goods and sports attire industries in the SEA region. Many sports attire factories were established, to manufacture international and local brands. Examples of the two of the better-known local brands. which have established themselves internationally, are Antioni of Malaysia and FBT of Thailand.

Besides sports attire, some sports equipment manufacturers have also been established, indirectly due to the SEA Games. The best example is in the production of balls used in Sepaktakraw, a sport native to the region. Traditionally Sepaktakraw balls were made from rattan. The increased popularity and rapid growth of the sport of Sepaktakraw as a result of the SEA Games, led to a large demand for Sepaktakraw balls. Natural rattan was found to be inadequate, both in terms of the supply and the consistency in the standard of the balls. This led to the introduction of plastic Sepaktakraw balls. Today there are a couple of well-known Sepaktakraw brands, such as Marathon of Thailand and Gajah Emas of Malaysia. These two brands together controls almost 100% of the market share of Sepaktakraw balls in the world.

Sports Marketing and Sponsorship

The regular organization of the SEA Games also saw the growth of sports marketing and sponsorship programme in the region. Based on the model of the successful marketing programme of the Olympic Games, since 1984, the
sponsorship programme of the SEA Games has been making good progress since 1989. Prior to the 1989, the organizational expenses of a SEA Games were fully borne by the governments of the host countries. Today, the situation is different, with sponsorship in kind and cash, contributing quite a large share of the organizational expenses.

The strong and stable economies and consumer market of the region have of course contributed much to the success of the sponsorship programme of the SEA Games. Both the organizing committee and the sponsors have benefited from the sponsorship programme of the SEA Games. Long and loyal partners of the SEA Games such as Cola-Cola and Milo have now become household names in the region. In addition the SEA Games offer the opportunities to the NOCs of the region to develop and improve their expertise and knowledge on
sports marketing and events promotion. The evidence of this is the strong national sponsorship and marketing programmes developed by and for the NOCs of the region, through their association with the Top programme as well as the SEA Games.


Being experts in organizing the SEA Games is insufficient. Improvement of the standards of athletes and teams of the region is equally, if not more important.

The structure of the SEA Games Federation has to change with modern times. The selection of and the number of sports and events must also be changed. The increase of the number of sports and events without scientific and statistical support will not achieve the objective of improvement in standards.

The Games is very popular both for the people and the governments of the SEA region, as it provides an arena where athletes within similar traditions, cultures and physical endowments, competitions. The strong support of the governments has contributed in making the Games one of the most attractive and viable regional Games in the world. However, just being experts in organizing the SEA Games is insufficient. Improvement of the standards of athletes and teams of the region is equally, if not more important.

ln order to maintain, if not enhance its attractiveness and importance in the new millennium, the SEA Games Federation has to review its objectives and role. The following areas should be studied and evaluated:

• structure of the SEA Games Federation
• method of selection of sports and events in the programme
• the number of sports and events in the programme
• regional development programmes to produce world class athletes
• organizational cost of the SEA Games
• the relevance of sophisticated and expensive technology for the organization of the Games
• transfer of technology from past Games hosts to the new host
• establishment of a longer term (covering at least two Games) sponsorship programme
• changing the format of the Games to enable all member organizations of the region to host the Games

It cannot be denied that the SEA Games has contributed very much to the development of sports and the strengthening of the friendship and solidarity in the SEA region. The SEA Games has proven once again that sports could bridge political, religious and ethnic diversities. But whatever is said and done, we certainly have come a long way.

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