SEA Games: Target 111 as Malaysia aim to set gold standard
Malaysia are gunning to top the medals table and generate some positive headlines after pulling out all the stops to host the Southeast Asian Games, which open in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
The steamy nation has finished top of the medals tally only once, the last time it held the biennial competition, and is hoping to match the 111 golds it won on home ground in 2001.
At the 11-nation SEA Games, which retain a proudly regional flavour, Olympic sports like swimming and athletics sit side-by-side with regional favourites like martial arts pencak silat and wushu.
History shows Malaysia’s medals bid is well-founded: six of the last 10 SEA Games hosts have topped the table, reflecting the tradition of rewriting the sporting programme to suit local strengths.
Ahead of Saturday’s opening ceremony, Malaysia were quickly on the board with the Games’ first title, in sepak takraw –- a ball-juggling sport played with the feet and a rattan ball.
“Today our mission has been accomplished. But we have 110 gold medals to go,” said Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who will compete for Malaysia in polo.
“Gold will not come rolling to us. We have to go and win the gold.”
Malaysia has dealt with difficult events in recent times, including the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the 1MDB financial scandal and February’s assassination in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
But the SEA Games are a chance to paint a more flattering picture, and workers have been busy sprucing up the capital by repairing roads and pavements, and decorating the streets with plants and flowers.
Buildings and lampposts are draped with Malaysian flags, and the SEA Games mascot, a cuddly tiger called Rimau, adorns electronic billboards around the city. Malaysia will celebrate 60 years of independence on August 31, the day after the closing ceremony.
Breaking the ice
However, last-minute hitches hint at a level of unpreparedness, with a key venue reportedly not ready this week and large numbers of fans with tickets turned away from Malaysia’s opening football match against Brunei.
Thousands of police, plus commandos and Malaysia’s specialist anti-terror force, will guard against potential threats, and pre-Games raids rounded up hundreds of illegal migrant workers –- most of whom were later released.
The home country’s chief threat on the medals table comes from Thailand, who were top at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore with 95 golds, well ahead of fourth-placed Malaysia’s 62.
With badminton star Lee Chong Wei away at the world championships in Glasgow, track cycling and diving world title-holders Azizulhasni Awang and Cheong Jun Hoong are the figureheads for Malaysia’s team of 800-plus.
Neighbouring Singapore venture across the border with 100m butterfly Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, who irritated Malaysians when he cheekily promised to “teach them a thing or two” in the pool.
Schooling won nine gold medals in 2015 but he is only expected to swim three individual events in Kuala Lumpur — while Vietnam’s Nguyen Thi Anh Vien, an eight-time winner in Singapore, is reportedly going for 12 swimming victories.
Kuala Lumpur will also be the first SEA Games to feature ice sports — ice hockey, speed skating and figure skating — despite the fact that tropical Malaysia has no winter months, and temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees C (68 F).
In a diverse programme, athletics and swimming have the biggest medal-count among the 404 titles on offer, while pencak silat has 20 golds and even petanque, a hangover of French colonialism, will crown seven SEA Games champions.