KUALA LUMPUR: The 29th SEA Games will go down in the annals of Malaysia’s sporting history and remain the most celebrated for years to come as the country rejoiced in emerging overall champion for the second time in nearly 60 years.
The unexpected haul of 145 gold earned from the sweat and toil of 844 athletes that included Sultan of Terengganu Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin to youngest contestant, nine-year-old water skier Adam Yoong Hanifah, astounded the hosts as much as their rivals.
Tasked with a 111-gold target, it didn’t take long for Malaysian athletes to tear up the script.
Egged on by solid support from home spectators and the resonating Games theme “Rising Together” , there was no doubt that the athletes would go beyond the mark just a week into the competition of the 38 sports and 404 events.
The145 gold haul is not the highest in the Games existence – that credit goes to Thailand which topped with 183 gold from 43 sports as the 2007 organiser, followed by Indonesia with 182 gold from 44 sports as 2011 hosts.
Malaysia’s diving head coach Yang Zhuliang is confident that Malaysia will continue to have a future in not just the SEA Games but also at the Olympics where his athletes have graced the rostrum in London 2012 and Rio 2016.
The diving team swept all 13 gold producing a new array of young stars in the likes of Jellson Jabillin , Gabriel Gilbert Daim and Kimberly Bong.
Away from high pressure world-ranked competitions in which they have made a name, it was a delight to watch world champion Cheong Jun Hoong and Olympic medallist Pandelela Rinong soaring with such relaxing grace and class at the National Aquatic Centre.
The track cycling team starred by Azizulhasni Awang in his world champion keirin jersey was simply devastating at the National Velodrome in Nilai where they captured 11 of 13 gold including a double from Azizulhasni who won the men’s sprint and keirin, and woman cyclist Fatehah Mustapa grabbing two individual and two team gold.
The Games also drew out the best in the track and field team in over a decade headlined by Khairul Hafiz Jantan’s winning 100m sprint to hold their heads high alongside multiple gold performers in archery, karate, bowling, lawn bowls, ice skating, wushu, silat, artistic and rhythmic gymnastics, water ski, shooting, sailing and synchronised swimming.
Despite the frustrations of being beaten by Thailand for the men’s football gold, Malaysia werlcomed the emergence of a little known striker in N. Thanabalan who marked his Games debut with four goals including the solitary late winner against Indonesia in the semifinal.
As for badminton, in the wake of the Malaysia’s dismal outing in the Glasgow World Badminton Championships, the SEA Games provided no consolation with only a solitary gold from Goh Jin Wei in the women’s singles.
The overall gold count for the rest of the participating countries has dropped significantly except for Cambodia and Laos against the runaway success of Malaysia.
Thailand, overall winner in Singapore two years ago with 93 gold, are returning with 72 amid signs that they will have to deal with rising force Vietnam which dislodged them as king of athletics and advancing in other fronts as well.
Vietnam, which will host the Games in 2021, are third here on 58 gold with 17 from track and field alone. The youth of their champions here such as sprint queen Le Tu Chinh and teammate Nguyen Thi Huyen and swim diva Nuyen Thi Anh Vien signal they will be the force to be reckoned with even by the next Games.
Singapore, finishing just a medal short of Vietnam, as expected maintained their domination in swimming with Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling and the likes of Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Tin Wen raking in 19 golds and the island state did well in the sailing races in Langkawi with four gold.
Indonesia go home with 38 gold from 47 in 2015 and have their work cut out for next year’s Asian Games of which they are hosts.
As the Games flag is passed to its next host, the Philippines, the next question will be how many and what sports will be hosted outside metro Manila in 2019 amid the usual grouses over host countries taking advantage to feature sports which favour them.
It will be no surprise if the Philippines take the same cue. With a declining gold count to 24 here, half of what they wanted, the Filipinos would surely aim to repeat their winning ways in 2005 when they last hosted the Games and were overall champions with 113 golds from staging 40 sports featuring 444 events.
Based on the 2005 programme, it is speculated that the traditional Filipino sport of anis, dance sports, softball and traditional boat races would be heavy contenders to be reinstated in 2019.
But for now, Malaysia celebrate. –Bernama