HANOI—Mention the words “kempo,” “vovinam” or “chinlone” and expect an angry response from Southeast Asia’s seething sports bosses—if they can remember what they are.
The obscure terms are indigenous sports disciplines and for the few countries that play them, they will offer an unusual amount of medals at this year’s Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, at the expense of gymnasts, tennis and beach volleyball players bitter their sports were ditched by hosts Burma.
Like Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics in 2008, Burma is billing the December Games as its coming out party after 49 years of military rule, but dampening celebrations is fierce criticism from competitors who accuse the hosts of cherry-picking sports it plays best.
Meetings of the 11 competing countries have been fraught with arguments, according to some who attended, with deep suspicions that Burma has struck deals with certain states and sought to weaken the hand of stronger nations to boost its normally mediocre standing in the medals table.
The 33-sport program, which still has yet to be finalized, features most Olympic favorites like athletics, boxing and swimming, but up to a third of the medals are allotted to martial arts-related events.
Some countries have said the politicking and gamesmanship is making a mockery of Burma’s first SEA Games since 1969.
“It’s ridiculous…whatever sports they want in, they get and the ones they’ve chosen carry too many medals,” said Charoen Wattanasin of Thailand’s Olympic Committee. “This sort of thing shouldn’t happen. The charm of the SEA Games has diminished significantly in recent years. The atmosphere used to be cordial, it was like a family.”
Sports officials in the Philippines are even more furious and some have made dramatic, but apparently hollow, threats of a boycott. Others said they may instead send a weakened team in protest.
“We believe that there will be 60 medals in these indigenous sports and we’ll get a big fat zero in the medal tally, because we’re not taking part in any of those,” said a Philippine Olympic Committee member, who declined to be named. “Why should we send a large delegation and spend a lot of money when we are clearly in a disadvantaged position?”
Rivalry is extremely fierce at the biennial Games watched by tens of millions of people. The contest almost always ends in acrimony, with walkouts, protests and allegations of match-fixing, and biased refereeing and blatant cheating commonplace.
The outcry about the little-known sports is because they’re only really played by Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.
Vovinam is a Vietnamese martial art that includes armed and unarmed categories and kempo is a derivative of kung-fu popular in Laos and Cambodia – countries that pose little threat to Burma’s quest for a top-three finish in the medals chart.
Chinlone has drawn anger since it is only played competitively in Burma. It’s included under the regional sport of sepak takraw – essentially volleyball using feet – but is quite different, closer to what soccer players call “keepie-up,” with no net and points awarded for technique.
But Burmais no stranger to criticism having endured decades of international ostracism while ruled from 1962-2011 by generals who rarely caved in to foreign pressure.
Like then, Burma says it can, and will, do as it pleases. “We’re just following the SEA Games Charter so there isn’t any serious problem,” said Thet Lwin, a top sports ministry official.
Burma has made some compromises to cool tempers and last month reinstated badminton and table tennis and some events in athletics and aquatics, to appease Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, which have since taken a more conciliatory tone.
“The host country has it right to pick which sports to play, depending on their capability. There’s also politicking to it which is normal,” Indonesia’s Minister for Youth and Sports, Roy Suryo, told Reuters.
The Games will take place in three cities, Yangon, Mandalay and in the new capital Naypyitaw, a vast, sparsely populated city with grandiose buildings. Most venues are newly built, with substantial help from allies like China and Japan.
Chris Chan, secretary general of Singapore’s Olympic Council, praised Burma for smooth preparations he said were “way ahead” of previous hosts.
Cambodian counterpart Vath Chamroeun called on competing nations to end the dispute and said talk of boycotts would be “undignified,” comments echoed by Malaysia’s Olympic chief. “They haven’t had the SEA games for over 40 years,” Sieh Koktold Bernama news agency. “They should be given a chance.”