The SEA Games open in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi on Thursday after a six-month Covid delay with Southeast Asian pride at stake in everything from football to bodybuilding and eSports.
More than 5,000 athletes including Olympic champions are vying for over 500 gold medals in the event, which is staged every two years, in what should be packed arenas.
The 11-nation Games include traditional Olympic sports such as athletics, swimming and boxing, but also regional ones like sepak takraw, an eye-catching volleyball-style game where teams kick a rattan ball.
Thailand’s taekwondo world number one Panipak Wongpattanakit and Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who both won gold at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, are among the top athletes on display.
Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won the city-state’s historic first Olympic gold in 2016, is juggling national military service back home with participating and hopes to regain his scintillating past form.
Host nations typically include sports in which they perform well, helping them clinch numerous golds but leading to criticism that it detracts from the prestige of the competition.
However, with 40 sports in this edition, down from 56 in Manila in 2019, Vietnam insists it is seeking a “fair Games” with little space for local sports.
“The hosts will have to fight as hard as other teams to earn golds against powerhouses, especially Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,” Games organising committee deputy head Tran Duc Phan said on state-owned Vietnam News.
Organisers have though still added some local flavour.
This 31st edition of the regional spectacular will be the first to feature xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess, which is wildly popular in the host country.
These Games will also see the return of Vietnamese martial art vovinam.
Events retained from 2019 include eSports, dancesport – a competitive form of ballroom dancing – and the ancient Uzbek wrestling art of kurash.
The opening ceremony is on Thursday but some competitions have already begun, with Malaysia winning the first gold when diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri triumphed in the women’s one-metre springboard.
These Games were originally scheduled to take place in November but were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With infections falling heavily since a peak of more than 200,000 a day in March, spectators in venues – they do not even have to take a Covid test – will be a contrast to last year’s mostly fan-free Tokyo Olympics.
Only last week the 2022 Asian Games were postponed because of the virus. The multisport, Olympic-sized showpiece had been scheduled to take place in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September.
The SEA Games are centred on Hanoi with action also taking place in 11 nearby northern provinces.
It is the second time that Vietnam has hosted the Games – the 2003 edition was hosted by Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – and some 2,000 banners have been placed around Hanoi for Thursday’s opening ceremony in My Dinh Stadium.
Local media said that thousands of people queued up overnight to snap up tickets for football matches featuring the Vietnam team.
Some locals view the Games as a sign that life is returning to normal.
“We have gone through a huge Covid pandemic,” said 25-year-old Hanoi resident Nguyen Bich Ngoc.
“Our government has spent a lot of efforts to organise this SEA Games for our country and Southeast Asia.”