Singapore rolls out red carpet for SEA Games
SINGAPORE - Wealthy Singapore is pulling out all the stops for a Southeast Asian (SEA) Games which promises to be the slickest in the regional event's 56-year history.
Athletes can expect the red-carpet treatment, with many staying at plush hotels and competing at top facilities including the new, billion-dollar Sports Hub complex.
A fleet of 650 cars and buses will take 7,000 athletes and officials around the small, island state during the biennial competition which finishes on June 16.
Competitors can relax in the well-appointed Nila Suite, which has karaoke, free wifi, massage chairs and games consoles plus "comfort food" for those in need.
Digital coverage will be unprecedented, with live broadcasts available on a dedicated phone and tablet app and 17 sports streamed on YouTube.
Athletics events will get the hi-tech touch with remote-controlled cars used to collect javelins, hammers and discuses from the field.
It is a far cry from previous editions of the unique SEA Games, where Olympic sports share the roster with lesser-known, regional pursuits like martial art pencak silat.
Singapore has not hosted the 11-nation event for 22 years, a period of intense growth for the seaport and financial centre at the south of the Malay peninsula.
Despite grief over the March death of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, it is intended as a show of force as the nation of 5.4 million marks 50 years of independence.
Squeaky-clean Singapore has one of the world's highest concentrations of millionaires and growing ambitions in sports, with its own F1 race and top-class tennis.
It will hope to show its neighbors a different kind of SEA Games, after some past editions were characterized by embezzlement, mismanagement and unfinished venues.
At the 2011 Games in Indonesia, corruption and delays caused considerable embarrassment, and the tournament concluded with a deadly stampede at the football final.
Friday's opening ceremony will take place at the 55,000-seat National Stadium, whose retractable, domed roof doubles as a giant projector.
Red flags urging "Do Us Proud, Team Singapore!" have been strategically placed on public housing blocks, but genuine anticipation is palpable and ticket sales are brisk.
Despite the intense preparations, controversy is inevitable and the early days of competition, before the opening ceremony, have already been eventful.
East Timor's football team manager was detained and charged with match-fixing, and Malaysian playmaker Nazmi Faiz received a six-game ban for spitting.
Separately, officials defended safety at the pistol ranges after a claim that ricocheting bullets had caused injury and deflected out of the venue.
Among the main attractions will be Singapore's rising swimmer Joseph Schooling, who is going for nine gold medals, and Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Anh Vien, who has entered all 19 women's races.
Malaysian badminton star Lee Chong Wei, who recently completed an eight-month drugs ban, will draw crowds when he plays in the team event.
When all 402 gold medals from 36 sports are decided, Singapore will hope to top the table, as the SEA Games program is malleable and is usually tailored to suit the host country.
Floorball (indoor hockey), rugby, bowling and triathlon are among 11 changes to the line-up from Myanmar 2013, with bodybuilding and some obscure martial arts among the sports axed.
A successful Games could bring further big events to Singapore, and erase memories of the overspending which marred its hosting of the 2010 Youth Olympics.
The feel-good factor may also yield a political dividend for the government led by Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, as it considers holding general elections. - Talek Harris/Rappler.com