SEA Games finally ditched until next year

July 23, 2021 | 14:11
Organisers of the 31st Southeast Asian Games, due to take place in Vietnam later this year, finally agreed to postpone the event after months of wrangling over a new date, which is still not agreed. It is the latest in a string of mounting issues facing sports event organisers and participants, with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics set to take place in front of no spectators.
Vietnam last held the SEA Games in 2003, but will have to wait to do so a second time, Photo Le Toan
Vietnam last held the SEA Games in 2003, but will have to wait to do so a second time. Photo: Le Toan

Earlier this month, the SEA Games organising committee and National Olympic Councils finally decided to halt preparations for the event, which was due to take place in Hanoi and surrounding areas from November 21 to December 2. The accompanying ASEAN Para Games were to be hosted on December 17-23.

Ten of the 11 member countries voted to postpone the event until next year during the federation’s teleconference meeting this week. The Vietnamese delegation abstained, explaining it would have to talk to government officials before deciding on a rescheduled date for the games. A number of members have proposed new dates from the end of April to early May 2022.

Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham Tolentino announced after the latest meeting on July 8 that the SEA Games Federation had unanimously decided on the postponement of the biennial event.

“We’re united in the decision,” Tolentino said. “The SEA Games must be postponed this year due to COVID-19 in the Southeast Asian region.”

Tolentino stressed that the SEA Games are not cancelled – rather, they are waiting for an update from the Vietnamese organising committee as to when the event can be held. Tolentino’s expectation is that Vietnam will reschedule the SEA Games for early 2022, adding that he hoped a decision would be made on a new schedule as early as this week.

“The new dates for the SEA Games will be known within 10-14 days. Hosts Vietnam will propose and finalise the new dates,” Olympic Council of Malaysia president Tan Sri Norza Zakaria said after the meeting.

The postponement is a setback for sports commissions in terms of athletes’ preparation for the SEA Games. The majority of national team athletes were inactive in 2020 due to the pandemic, and in the Philippines, said Tolentino, it was not until January that some of them received clearance to train at the Inspire Sports Academy in preparation for Olympic qualifying events.

The country’s sports commissioner Ramon Fernandez, the chef-de-mission to the SEA Games, previously called on national sports associations to partner with local government units in creating a “bubble” environment for athletes to train.

Fluctuating regulations

At a previous conference to discuss the situation on June 9, Vietnamese authorities explained their reasons for the request to not go ahead with the November and December dates, and postpone instead to the summer of 2022, but in a vote only Myanmar agreed, while the other members voted against and Laos abstained.

Vietnam was given two weeks to come up with a new proposal. One such potential proposal was postponing hosting duties until the 2027 edition, which is due to be held in Brunei. Brunei declined to host the events in 2015 and sources said the nation may continue in that vein moving forward, giving Vietnam a chance to host at a more suitable time.

But in the weeks of June and into July, countries that wanted the event to go ahead as planned such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were finally resigned to the fact that increases in pandemic restrictions and coronavirus cases in Vietnam was only going to make the event logistically complex to hold at this time.

Last month, Hanoi underwent a series of changes in terms of restrictions to battle the pandemic, with cafes, restaurants, and barbershops forced to close yet again for an unknown amount of time. Gyms have been closed since May, as have language centres. There have also been huge efforts to suppress outbreaks in localities outside Hanoi such as Bac Giang and Bac Ninh. Those localities, along with nine others, were due to host the SEA Games along with the capital. As many as 40 sports with over 500 categories were expected to take place in Hanoi and other aforementioned localities such as Ninh Binh and Haiphong.

While Ho Chi Minh City is on the other side of the country, the alarming rate of coronavirus cases and subsequent directives to ensure the pandemic is controlled yet again has had a snowball effect on other parts of Vietnam. People with a good reason were still allowed to fly between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, leading to new infections in the capital.

But the main worry for organisers, other than the risk of infection, was that too many conditions would be imposed on the competition in regards to entering and exiting the country and particular cities and provinces, as well as enforcing quarantine and distancing regulations. Athletes from some member nations have been fully vaccinated, meanwhile, but others have not.

Olympic-sized debacle

The SEA Games is not the only sporting event facing massive difficulties this year. One of the biggest sporting festivals in history, the Olympics Games, is set to return on Friday in Tokyo. After already being postponed last year, officials insisted the event had to go ahead in 2021 so as to not suffer terrible financial losses.

But as 2021 crept forward, the pandemic refused to budge and the country’s prime minister was forced to issue a state of emergency last week, which will cover the entire Olympic Games. As a result, all events will be behind closed doors with no spectators allowed.

According to an estimate conducted by professor emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto of Kansai University, the cost of delaying the 2020 Olympics by one year was estimated to be $5.8 billion, taking maintenance expenditures for unused facilities into account. A complete cancellation would cost Japan a whopping $41.5 billion, based on operating expenses and loss of tourism activity.

Even for those that will be able to take part – the athletes themselves – a myriad of problems remain in the air just days before the event is due to begin. For Vietnamese performers, there have been concerns over accommodation and also training facilities.

“Normally, before a major event like this, we would send a crew there to scout for accommodation as well as training locations,” an official of the Department of Physical Education and Sports told local media. “However, this time we couldn’t send anyone to Japan due to travel restrictions and other factors. We are worried as the organisers only informed us about COVID-19 prevention measures, but have yet to let us know about other important things like training for athletes.”

It is expected that the Vietnamese delegation would not fully assemble in Tokyo until July 19. All members have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and will also have to test negative for the virus three days in the lead-up to the flight to Tokyo.

In terms of trying to get the SEA Games back on track, officials note that health and safety should come above everything else. “Holding a major sports event this year entails additional costs on protocols,” one insider told the Philippines’ Daily Tribune. “But more than that, you have to concern yourself with the common good and not to put your citizens and guests in harm’s way. At the end of the day, it’s the national government of Vietnam which will decide.”

In normal times, the SEA Games can bring in bumper revenues for various economic segments. The last edition, held in the Philippines in 2019, was projected to have brought in over $18 million for the hospitality industry alone, according to the country’s Department of Tourism. Some 35 hotels and resorts were exclusively used by athletes, sports officials, and other guests related to the competition at an average rate of over $133 per night, according to the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association. The estimated revenues did not include cash brought in for either food or transportation.

The total budget allocated by the Vietnamese government for the SEA Games was estimated to be $69.3 million, according to local media. Organisation revenues were expected to be $9.7 million, with $5.8 million coming from the delegates’ accommodation fees and $2.8 million coming from broadcast rights.

By Quang Bao

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