With athletes unsure whether they will compete, and no apparent financial strategy, Myanmar’s SEA Games preparations are running far from smoothly
By Tim McLaughlin
On the wall of the Myanmar athletes’ training facility a giant countdown calendar is a constant reminder of the dwindling days until the opening of the 27th Southeast Asian Games.
The roughly 800 athletes who train here, 30 minutes outside of Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, have been plucked from across the country for their athletic potential, although some of them might have been busting a gut in vain as the final list of sports to be contested remains in limbo.
Myanmar agitated its fellow Asean nations when, on January 27, officials announced that they would drop five Olympic sports from the games. Badminton and table tennis – two of the region’s most wildly popular sports – were among those axed. Field hockey, tennis and gymnastics were the other three sports to miss the cut.
There was a predictable outcry from other participating nations accusing Myanmar of using traditional sports, such as the rattan ball keep-it-up game of chinlon, as a way to pad the final medal tally.
The tactic is not uncommon. Since 2001 the inclusion of relatively obscure regional sports has helped the host country to top the final medal table in every SEA Games with the exception of Laos in 2009, which finished seventh.
The outcry was enough for Myanmar to sound a partial retreat and, on January 29, table tennis, badminton and field hockey were reinstated. Tennis and gymnastics will still be left out.
Participating athletes have less than a year until the pageantry of the opening ceremony officially starts the games. December 11 is the day organisers are aiming for – an auspicious start date of 11-12-13.
One 16-year-old track and field athlete from a village near Mandalay said she misses her home and parents but also knows that training will give her the best opportunity to make the final roster. The training facilities in her hometown, like most in Myanmar, have scant equipment and lack adequate coaches.
The new facility opened in 2011 as part of the country’s push to land atop the medal table but also, more importantly, to use the games to showcase the country’s rapid reform process.
The once largely shuttered nation has made significant strides towards re-engaging with the international community after emerging from decades of military rule. The SEA Games will be a closely watched public relations and political platform for reformist President U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.
While the yachting portion of the games will be held west of Yangon at Ngwe Saung Beach on the Bay of Bengal and stadiums in Yangon and Mandalay will feature a small portion of events, officials are eager to present Naypyidaw to its Asean neighbours.
The sprawling capital emerged out of Myanmar’s central plains in 2005 in a telling tale of the former government’s irrational paranoia, complete with a cast of megalomaniac generals, star-gazing astrologers and military strongmen.
Grandiose military monuments line the largely empty 18-lane highway that runs through the capital. In Zabuthiri Township the centrepiece of the SEA Games is rising out of the plains among a mass of longyi-clad construction workers who are toiling overtime to meet looming deadlines.
Max Myanmar, a company owned by tycoon U Zaw Zaw who is still under targeted sanctions for his relationship with the past regime, is constructing a development project that includes an aquatics centre, multi-sport arena and 30,000-seat stadium.
The stadium, which officials are eager to show off, was recently opened in a ceremony attended by the country’s top military brass, with an aerial display by skydivers from the Myanmar Air Force. It will host the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the games’ most popular event – football.
Inside, team lounges have hardwood floors. The suite for visiting dignitaries is lined with rows of plush seats that provide a panoramic view of the pitch. A mirrored wall inlayed with intricate woodcarvings greets guests arriving through the VIP entrance.
A giant video screen, measuring about 18 metres wide by nine metres high, hangs at one end. Officials are hoping that come December the screen will be showing highlights of the national team – dubbed ‘The White Angels’ – making an improbable run to the championship match, something they have not done since 1993.
These touches of luxury come at a price, but just how much is something officials are reluctant to discuss, with little transparency around the SEA Games’ budget.
Deputy Minister for Sport and Vice President of the Myanmar Olympic Committee U Thaung Htike dodged questions regarding costs. “It is not our responsibility,” he said of the Ministry of Sports, despite its key role in the preparation and staging of the SEA Games. He added that the creation of 13 sub-committees had made tracking the budget a near impossible task.
Chief engineer for the soccer stadium, U Aye Lwin Aung, said that he also had no idea of the cost of the massive construction project he is overseeing. “We are just the workers. We don’t know the cost,” he said bluntly.
In parliament, lawmakers were slightly more open about spending as a whole, though a hard number has not been pinned down. U Aye Mauk of Mahlaing constituency said that roughly K340 billion ($400m) has been allocated for the SEA Games, but more might be available if needed.
Given the country’s budget deficit and the pressure on the government to increase social spending, financial transparency should be receiving more attention. But officials seem far more interested in what they see as positive publicity for hosting the games, than the monetary withdrawals it will take.
Singapore, which will host the next SEA Games in 2015, has shown far more concern with over two years to go than Myanmar has as the opening ceremonies loom.
The tiny city-state has recent experience with international sporting events to draw on: when it hosted the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, the $85m-budget ballooned to $317m.
Not wanting to make the same mistake again, the Singaporean government has already pledged to keep a tight rein on potential cost blowouts. “We are keeping a very tight watch over the entire budget,” Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Chan Chun Sing said in July 2012.
Myanmar’s ministers have been mute and it may never come to light just how much the games will cost Myanmar. But as long as the image of a nation on the rise is fully preserved, most officials have little concern.
Their silence has made one thing clear: appearances must be upheld, at any cost.
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