SINGAPORE: Even before the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games torch is lit in Manila on Saturday (Nov 30), the host country has come under fire.
Complaints have included incomplete infrastructure for the Games, with work still being done to the façade of the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, and international journalists being stationed in a makeshift media centre.
The management of athletes has also fallen short as reports showed some resting on the floor because hotels were not ready to check them in yet, while others have complained of insufficient or poor provision of food.
The Thai football team reportedly trained in the streets because the training facilities allocated to them were just too far away from their hotel.
Such reports and more coming out of the Philippines have dealt something of a blow to the country’s reputation and credibility.
However, while athletes and officials have valid reasons for griping, some of the criticism levied at the Philippines is just unfair and premature.
A DEVELOPING PROBLEM?
Some have said that the Philippines’ lack of preparation for these games is due to its ineptitude.
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One reader commented: “That's what you get for hosting in a third world country. The Philippines President is doing his best to clean up the country but the ungrateful people kept trying to undo his efforts.”
But hosting large international and regional sporting events can be a logistical challenge for any country, even the most savvy and well-practised in organising global events.
When American city Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics, poor transportation planning saw athletes and fans delayed for events in extra-long bus rides with drivers from out of town trying to navigate the city’s complex highways.
Scheduling of the Olympics itself came under criticism as the July-August period coincides with Atlanta’s hottest period each year.
The first weekend of those Games saw athletes braving temperatures that exceeded 37 degrees Celsius.
There was also the tragic incident of a bomb exploding in the Centennial Olympic Park which killed two and wounded more than 100.
Spain infuriated international footballers through airport and flight delays, ticketing and hotel mess-ups when it hosted the 1982 World Cup.
Logistics lapses over meals for volunteers and food poisoning were also a part of Singapore’s hosting of the Youth Olympic Games in 2010.
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The Philippines may have had some hiccups in the lead up to the opening ceremony of the SEA Games.
But having hosted three successful editions of the regional competition before in 1981, 1991 and 2005, it has a pretty decent track-record of delivering the goods when it matters.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Second, it is a little premature to pass a verdict when the SEA Games have not even officially begun. From my experience, host countries eventually find a way to iron out teething issues.
In 2014, just months before Brazil hosted the World Cup, international media reports suggested that the South American football-crazy country was ill-prepared.
Citing the country’s high crime rate and infrastructural lapses, such as incomplete stadiums and a link-bridge collapsing, many said that Brazil would be unable to ensure the safety and security of travelling fans.
It so happened I was one of those fans who had planned to watch five matches in Brazil. Despite the trepidation of family and friends, I flew to Brazil.
What I saw first-hand surprised me. Well-organised processes and efficient public transportation ensured that fans getting to the swanky, new stadiums had a seamless, safe and enjoyable experience.
The Brazilian government’s US$900 million spending on security for the tournament was evident as armed security forces lined the streets near hotels, stadiums, city-centres and tourist attractions.
Yes, there were initial delays and hiccups in getting the places ready for the tournament.
But for all the initial misgivings, the Brazilians eventually delivered a pretty stellar tournament.
Four years later, the Russians also succumbed to similar criticism in the lead up to its hosting of the 2018 World Cup. Again, concerns of safety, security and preparation were raised.
And again, armed with tickets to four matches, I travelled to Russia.
In my two weeks there, I went to different cities in comfortable and high-speed overnight sleeper trains, which were free-of-charge to all match-ticket holders.
Along with the transport, the match infrastructure was impeccable with orderly queues to enter the stadiums and fan-zones.
English-trained Russian student volunteers were readily available to guide visitors and help us manoeuvre local signs and eateries.
The presence of security was prominent throughout the country while Russia’s initiative of issuing electronic fan ID passes to all registered match-ticket holders ensured a safe environment for fans.
These experiences tell me that we should perhaps rate the Philippines after the competition is over. And that, like Brazil and Russia, it may be ready by the time the SEA Games officially opens this weekend.
A FORGETTABLE INDIAN SUMMER
Admittedly, not all host nations get there. For example, when India hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games, it came under the international spotlight for the wrong reasons.
The slow pace of work and bureaucratic hurdles meant that two-thirds of venues were behind schedule a year before the Games were to be hosted, prompting the Commonwealth Games Federation chief Mike Fennell to sound the alarm bells.
“(T)he current situation poses a serious risk to the Commonwealth Games in 2010,” he reportedly wrote in a letter to the local organising committee.
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India went on to host the Games but not without hiccups. Participating nations complained about accommodation as the athletes’ village lacked proper safety and reeked of poor hygiene standards, including exposed electrical wiring, plumbing problems, dirty facilities and flooding outside the accommodation.
Several top athletes pulled out of the Games citing risks to their health and safety.
Embarrassed by the negative publicity generated by the international media, the Indians scurried to fix the problems but they reacted too slowly and to little avail.
The Indian government took a strong stand only after the Games were over. It even ordered a probe on suspected corruption among organising officials.
POLITICAL WILL TO SEE IT THROUGH
The Philippines, on the other hand, is not waiting until after the Games are over to address the problem of any organising flaws and oversights.
President Rodrigo Duterte has already issued an ultimatum to organisers to work on contingency measures and fix any problems and called for a probe.
A presidential spokesperson on Tuesday (Nov 26) said that Duterte was “angry over what happened” and has ordered an investigation on “allegations of incompetence and corruption”.
It may well be that this timely intervention by the no-nonsense Duterte could help the Philippines deliver on a successful SEA Games.
Until then, let’s reserve judgement and not use derogatory terms like “third-world country” to tar a nation doing its best to welcome regional athletes.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.