The origins of athletic competition lie in the mists of time when tribal members competed in the everyday skills of survival. The fastest and strongest were lauded, for it was they who ensured the tribe’s continued existence, in times of peace and in times of war.
Certainly, Laung Sukhumanaipradit is hardly a household name, yet as a vice president of the Olympic Committee, he first floated the idea of a smaller sports event comprising the nations of the Southeast Asian peninsula, during the Third Asian Games held in Tokyo in 1958. At a meeting held on 22 May the same year, representatives from Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Malaysia met with their Thai hosts to explore the possibilities.
There was a certain logic to the idea. The countries of the region had many similarities. Modest of population and on a comparable economic footing, they shared common sports participation as well as roughly equal standards of achievement. Such an event would serve as a stepping stone for Southeast Asian athletes to raise their standards so as to be more competitive when they met more advantaged athletes in the larger arenas of the Asian and Olympic Games.
The meeting resulted in the formation of the Southeast Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games Federation in June 1959, the founder members being Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam - hence the six interlocked rings which formed the Games logo. The first president of the Federation was General Prabhas Charusatiara of Thailand and Luang Mayapradit was elected vice president with Dr Kalya Israsena taking the role of honorary secretary. Other pioneer members of the committee included Ms U Paing of Burma, His Highness Sisowath Essaro of Cambodia, Mr Nakkhla Souvannong of Laos, Mr Thong Poh Nyen of Malaysia and Mr Bguyen Phuoc Vong of Vietnam.
In deference to their efforts in bringing the whole concept to fruition, Thailand was given the honour of hosting the inaugural SEAP Games in 1959. Formally declared open by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand in Bangkok’s National Stadium, some 800 athletes and officials took part in 12 sporting disciplines: Athletics, Badminton, Basketball, Boxing, Cycling, Football, Tennis, Shooting, Swimming, Table Tennis, Volleyball and Weightlifting. The atmosphere of friendly competition added to the whole experience and the SEAP Games were definitely ‘off and running’.
The Federation had already decided that in future "the honour of hosting the SEAP Games shall be entrusted to the member organisation of each country in rotation in alphabetical order". Thus the hosts for the II SEAP Games were the Burmese, and President Win Maung of the Union of Burma inaugurated the 1961 meet at Rangoon. Cambodia did not take part in the inaugural Games but joined the fray in the second Games at Rangoon in 1961 which had a full turnout of the seven countries. Again, more than 800 athletes and officials took part and shared in the friendly ambience of athletic rivalry and social interaction.
- the designated hosts Cambodia were not able to host the event. The III SEAP Games then passed to Laos as hosts, but they begged off the 1965 event citing financial difficulties. Fortunately though, Malaysia steeped into the breach which, by right, should have been held in 1963 and the eight days sporting extravaganza was held in Kuala Lumpur with around 1,300 athletes and officials taking part. By now the SEAP Games Federation had gained another member with Singapore’s independence from the Malaysian Federation in August that year.
The incapability of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam to take on the job of hosting the Games in the foreseeable future raised some concern among the other member countries. Even the participation of these countries was limited to token squads. In 1967, Cambodia again declined to host the Games, but Thailand took over and some 1,200 participants gathered in Bangkok. The next scheduled hosts were Vietnam, but they too had to reluctantly inform the Federation that troubles in the country prevented them from fulfilling their obligations, and the V SEAP Games returned to Rangoon. Singapore, the youngest member of the family, made the first move to alleviate the situation. In 1969 at Rangoon the Fifth Games were held, they proposed changing the SEAP Games name to SEA (South East Asia ) Games.
No names were mentioned but it was clear that Singapore thought of reinforcements from Indonesia and Philippines to help lift the sagging fortunes of the series. These two countries, which were more advanced in the affairs of international sport that the original members of the SEAP Games Federation, would not only be able to help out in the hosts job which was going abetting but also enter contestants of a higher standard in some events.
Two years later, when Kuala Lumpur’s turn to officially host the VI SEAP Games for the second time in six years, Malaysia joined hands with Singapore to resubmit the name change proposal. Again, there was no success.
The Games continued in their original framework but the serious competition was provided only by Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Cambodia, and later Khmer, Laos and South Vietnam sent competitors who were mostly full time soldiers with little or no training in the events they were entered.
The four "active" countries who had carry the burden of hosting the Games were further depleted when Burma showed no further interest in helping out after hosting the 1969 Games, due to the deteriorating economy in their country.
An idea that had flamed so boldly into life less that two decades before now seemed liable to be extinguished, crippled by regional political problems and the increasing cost burden of hosting the event so regularly - Thailand had already hosted the Games three times, and Burma and Malaysia twice apiece. A lifeline was needed.
Malaysia tendered a suggestion - extend the Federation to include other countries in the Southeast Asian region. To back up its proposal, Malaysia offered to again host the Games on the proviso that Brunei, Indonesia and Philippines be invited to take part. A solution had been found and on 5 February 1977, these three new members were officially welcomed into the Federation. Present on this occasion were Ferry Sonneville of Indonesia and Colonel Nereo Andolong of the Philippines.
With fresh life breathed into the biennial event, the only cosmetic change required was to drop the word "Peninsula" from the federation’s title - the emblem and the sequential numbering of the Games would remain to perpetuate the objectives, aspirations and contributions of the original founders. The IX SEA Games (the first to bear that title ) was held in Kuala Lumpur in 1977 with seven countries participating.
Indonesia and the Philippines have been of full value to the movement since becoming members. As new members of the club, Indonesia hosted the X SEA Games in Jakarta in 1979, and the Philippines hosted for the first time in 1981 in Manila when over 2,000 athletes and officials took part. The XII Games were to be held in Brunei to start anew the alphabetical schedule of hosts, but Singapore took over when the tiny nation begged off because of its preparations for the celebration of its forthcoming independence from the United Kingdom.
Since that time the Games have gone from strength to strength, the XIII being held in Bangkok, XIV in Jakarta and the XV in Kuala Lumpur in 1989, which saw the return of Laos and Vietnam for the first time under the new title. With nine out of the ten member countries participating, it was not only the largest in the history of the Games to date but also in the number of athletes and officials with a total 3,160 on hand.
Manila hosted the next SEA Games, followed by Singapore when 4,6ll athletes and officials were on hand. The XVIII SEA Games in Chiang Mai broke new ground in that it was the first time the Games had been held outside the capital city of the host nation; it was also the first time that all 10 member nations - the last re-entry being Cambodia - turned up to compete.
The XIX SEA Games was held at Jakarta with a record number of 6007 athletes and officials participated. A total of 34 sporting disciplines with 1,432 medals were offered in this Game. It was a far cry from the first Games held in Thailand 38 years ago, when 800 pioneers turned up to contest 12 sporting events.
After much coaxing from the Southeast Asia Games Federation Council, Brunei Darussalam accepted to host the XX SEA Games for the first time. In view of the facilities available, a total of 21 sporting disciplines will be offered during the Games from 7th - 15th August 1999. Polo will be introduced for the first time in the Games.
The XVIII SEA Games in Chiang Mai saw the full turn-out of 10 member nation for the first time, but the progress in improving the quality of participation in the Asian and Olympic Games from the SEA family is slow. Since the birth of SEAP Games, Thailand , the Philippines and Malaysia have won a Silver and Bronze medal each and Indonesia a Gold, Silver and Bronze in the Olympic Games.
Whether this successes would had been achieved if there were no SEAP / SEA Games is difficult to say but there are more people knocking on the door for Asian and Olympic selection after participating in the SEA Games.
Another welcome development in the prominence given to the region’s endogenous sports and its potential in being accepted for competition in the Asian Games.
Sepak Takraw was accepted for SEAP Games competition in 1965 and it has been in every Games programme since then except in 1969 when the Games were held in Rangoon. The name Sepak Takraw itself was coined at a Federation Meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1965, combining the Malaysian and Thai names for the traditional sport. It has since enjoyed international status as a competitive sports and been a demonstration sport in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi.
Silat Olahraga, a martial art of the region, and traditional boat races were SEA Games event for the first time in Jakarta in 1987. They are in the program since then. Silat Olahraga has made giant strides outside the SEA Games framework and there are World Championships with good participation from European countries as well.
In 1989 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, body building has been paired off as one event with weight lifting and the traditional boat race taking refuge under yachting. Wushu another martial art and squash, were first introduced in the Manila XVI SEA Games 1991. In 1989 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, body building has been paired off as one event with weight lifting and the traditional boat race taking refuge under yachting. Athletics and swimming are compulsory sports.
For the first thirteen SEAP/SEA Games (1959 - 1985), the average number of events in the Games is 16. Since then, the average rose to 28 event which Jakarta offered the highest number in 1997. The lowest number of events is 12 with 67 gold medals made up for the first Games in 1959 while the highest is 34 with 438 gold in the 1997 programme in Jakarta.
Somewhere up above, Laung Sukhumanaipradit must be smiling contentedly. His vision has grown into not only the region’s major sporting attraction but, despite problems along the way, has done much to foster a closer, mutual understanding between the nations of Southeast Asia.