SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The 28th Southeast Asian Games opened in a blaze of colour and pageantry at Singapore’s new national Stadium on Friday, providing the sports world with a brief moment of celebration after a week of soccer-related scandal.
In keeping with tradition, the Games were declared open by the host nation’s head of state, Singaporean president Tony Tan, after a dazzling ceremony showcasing the region’s cultural diversity and spectacular economic growth.
About 50,000 spectators filed into the gleaming new stadium at Singapore’s $1 billion SportsHub for the two-hour multi-million-dollar show which ushered the region’s biggest multi-sports event into the tiny city-state.
Seemingly oblivious to the sordid revelations of corruption that have rocked the sporting world this past week, more than 4,000 athletes from the eclectic group of 11 nations that make up Southeast Asia marched into the stadium.
They were led by Brunei and followed by Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam.
The host nation Singapore came in last, with teenage swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, who is attempting to win an unfathomable 12 gold medals at the Games, carrying his country’s flag.
The SEA Games flag was raised and Micky Lin, the captain of Singapore’s netball team, read the athletes’ oath.
The ceremony centred on the aspirations of a young child who dared to dream big and create a brighter future, a narrative drawing heavily on Singapore’s transformation from a sleepy British colonial outpost to a global financial powerhouse that is now home to many of the world’s mega-rich.
The torch relay began in the city centre at the iconic Marina Bay and was passed between generations of Singapore’s best athletes.
Finally, the torch was handed to Fandi Ahmad, Singapore’s most celebrated footballer, who made over 100 appearances for his country and scored 55 goals.
He was joined by his 17-year-old son Irfan, who is a member of the Singaporean team competing at the SEA Games, and together they lit the cauldron, triggering a dazzling fireworks display at the stadium and other parts of the city.
Like all regional multi-sports events, the SEA Games struggles for mainstream recognition outside its own borders, but for the 11 competing countries, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Held every two years since 1959, the SEA Games feature a rich mixture of sports, many that are on the Olympic programme but also a few that keep faith with the region’s unique sporting interests, including the exotic pencak silat, sepak takraw and dragon boat racing.
More than 400 gold medals will be handed out before the Games close on June 16. Over a dozen gold medals have already been decided with the host-nation winning seven, Vietnam four, Thailand two and Malaysia one.
Singapore last hosted the Games in 1993 but specifically asked to stage the SEA Games this year as part of its 50th anniversary of independence from Malaysia.
The year-long celebrations have taken on added poignancy following the death in March of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong delivered a brief speech in which he paid tribute to Lee.
“He played a key part in developing a sporting Singapore. He officially opened our former National Stadium in 1973, when Singapore first hosted the SEA Games,” Wong said.
“Tonight, we are gathered together once again, at the same site in Kallang, but now in a different stadium, in this new majestic Sports Hub.”
Editing by Ed Osmond