The 32nd Southeast Asian Games, or SEA Games, are set to begin in Phnom Penh, Cambodia later this month. The popular event dates back to the first Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1959, one of the earliest areas of cooperation in the region. As the region’s premier sporting event, held every two years, the SEA Games has attracted a range of criticism and controversy over the years, particularly its reputation as a gold-medal mine for host nations.
At one level, the SEA Games is an institutionalized sporting competition held under the regulations of the Southeast Asian Games Federation and supervised by the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Council of Asia. However, the Games also differ markedly from other sporting events, particularly in terms of certain rules and norms that favor host nations. That is, although the federation charter indicates that every SEA Games shall consist of a minimum of 22 sports, there is no limit to the number of events. This means that the host country is free to drop an existing sport, no matter how globally popular it is, or introduce a new one, no matter how parochial it is. (The charter states that priority or preference should be given to those sports that are already included in Olympic Games and Asian Games). Furthermore, the host nation is also free to allocate a number of medals to the list of sports in the contest. These norms have often been exploited by host nations to help them win more medals.