Kickboxing, gold fever, and TV rights: The stormy history of SEA Games
The SEA Games, Southeast Asia’s regional “Olympics” held every two years, has earned a reputation as a gold-medal mine for its host nations.
Since its birth in 1959, when the event was known as the SEAP (Southeast Asian Peninsular) Games, the hosts have often finished top of the final medal tally. Even countries not known as sporting powerhouses have grabbed fistfuls of gold medals when they hosted the games, often finishing only behind the regional sports superpower among the 11 contesting countries.
When regional powerhouses like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam were hosts, their medal tallies skyrocketed to as many as 100 more than the second-place country.
Advantage of the hosts
This is due mainly to one big advantage host nations enjoy: they select the sports disciplines for the games and set the number of medals available in each one.
Hosts often increase the number of medals available in sports disciplines where their athletes excel, while reducing the number for sports they have little chance of winning or even dropping them completely. They also tend to add sports that are indigenous to their own countries and played by only a few of their neighbors.
Host nations tend to seek the “right formula” that will help them win as many gold medals as possible, with the aim of boosting not just national pride but also popularity of the government.
The 32nd SEA Games, to be hosted in Phnom Penh from May 5-17, have attracted their fair share of drama and controversy.
Drama and controversies
The most controversial issue involves Cambodia’s decision to replace kickboxing, known as “Muay Thai” in Thailand and internationally, with the local version called “Kun Khmer”. Despite protests by Thai officials, Cambodian organizers insisted on using the name “Kun Khmer”, claiming the sport originated in Khmer culture.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently intervened in the dispute, calling on the two countries to “reconcile” over the sport’s name. “If the SEA Games is held in Cambodia, kickboxing should be called Kun Khmer, and if it is held in Thailand, the event’s name must be Muay Thai,” he said.
Muay Thai competitions featured at the SEA Games in 2005, 2009, and 2013, as well as at the last two events – in the Philippines in 2019 and the COVID-postponed games in Vietnam last year. Kun Khmer has been included for the first time ever this year.
The dispute over that decision culminated in early February when the National Olympic Committee of Thailand (NOCT) announced that no Thai athletes would compete in kickboxing at the Phnom Penh Games.
NOCT commissioner Chaipak Siriwat, who also serves as vice chair of the SEA Games Federation Council, pointed out that the organizers had switched the supervising bodies for SEA Games kickboxing from the International Federation of Muaythai Associations to the Kun Khmer International Federation – which is not recognized by either the International Olympic Committee or the Olympic Council of Asia.
Also, Kun Khmer is not recognized by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which means it is not accredited by international sporting authorities, according to NOCT deputy chairman Warin Tansupasiri.
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High price for broadcast rights
Another SEA Games drama this year involves the high price of broadcast rights set by the organizers. Thailand has reportedly been asked to pay US$800,000 (28 million baht) for the rights – the highest in the Games’ 64-year history.
Vath Chomroeun, secretary-general of the Cambodia SEA Games Organizing Committee, said the cost of rights to live-broadcast the games is determined by the expected audience size and market value, which varies by nation.
So far, only Vietnam and Malaysia have reportedly agreed to purchase the broadcast rights for this year’s Games, although the prices they paid were not disclosed.
SEA Games host nations traditionally charge only a token fee for live broadcast rights. In 2019, the fee was $5,000 (175,000 baht) for the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines, while last year it was $10,000 (350,000 baht) for the 31st Games in Vietnam.
Host countries have been permitted to demand payment for broadcast rights since 2009, after getting the green light from the SEA Games Federation.
Laos, which played host that year, asked for 11 million baht – but none of the participating countries paid. After that, no host country had charged more than $10,000 for the rights until Cambodia broke the precedent, according to a Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) source.
Rare unity among Thais
Last week, SAT Governor Kongsak Yodmanee described the price of this year’s broadcast rights as unusually high and said Thailand would not pay it.
Thai netizens have also voiced opposition to using taxpayer’s money to buy broadcast rights at such a high price. They called on the SAT to spend the 28 million baht on more appropriate and beneficial projects, such as upgrading sports infrastructure.
Observers cited the public call as a rare example of unity across the Thai political spectrum.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk