NAYPYIDAW — In a new 30,000-seat football stadium here in Naypyidaw, Burmese athletes warm up and begin exercising in the early morning hours, to prepare for the upcoming 27th Southeast Asian Games.
The athletes have been busy training every day to get ready for the biennial regional sports competition scheduled in December. This year’s SEA Games will be the first to be hosted in Burma in four decades.
At the Wanna Theikdi Stadium, Kay Khine Lwin, a track and field athlete who will compete in the 100, 200 and perhaps 400-meter races, cools down after her workout.“I want gold medals,” the 35-year-old says. “So I’m preparing to be the best. But the competition will be tough, as my competitors from Vietnam and Thailand are well-trained.”
But being the host country will have advantages, she adds. “We have a better chance than our competitors to win,” she says. “It is our home and our people will cheer for us.”
Kay Khine Lwin has won several medals, including gold, in past SEA Games in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. But she says she worries about the prospects for Burmese competitors as they lack access to experienced and knowledgeable trainers, who can guide them to success in regional competitions.
A little more than 100 days remain until the opening of the Games on Dec. 11. Burma previously hosted the SEA Games in 1961 and 1969, both times in Rangoon, which was then the country’s capital. The last event was organized seven years after a military coup ushered in a decades-long dictatorship under Gen Ne Win.
Burma subsequently skipped its turn to host the SEA Games several times due to its international isolation during military rule. With the start of reforms in the past two years under President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government has come international acceptance, and Burma is finally able to host the regional competition again.
The 27th Sea Games will feature 35 different sporting events. The opening and closing ceremonies, and most competitions are held in the capital Naypyidaw. A number of events, including some football games, wrestling, hockey and weight lifting, will also be held in Rangoon and Mandalay. Ngwe Saung Beach will host a sailing competition.
Naypyidaw was built — at great expense and with the help of crony construction companies — by the former military regime, which moved the seat of government there in 2005. The upcoming SEA Games has provided authorities with an opportunity to go on another building spree in the young capital.
In the past year, construction firms have erected the massive Wunna Theikdi Stadium, which includes a swimming pool and an indoor stadium, the Zeyar Thiri Football Stadium and a range of other sports facilities, such as an outdoor cycling track, an equestrian field and the Royal Myanmar Golf Course.
The Games’ opening and closing ceremonies will be held at Wunna Theikdi Stadium, the country’s biggest stadium. It was built by the Max Myanmar Group owned by Burmese tycoon Zaw Zaw. His firm also built Zeyar Thiri Stadium and Mandalay’s Thiri Football Stadium for the December events.
Khin Maung Kywe, Max Myanmar Group’s construction director, said he was proud of the new Wanna Theikdi Stadium, which he said meets international standards with 30,000 seats, 500 VIP seats and CCTV cameras.
He said the SEA Games would promote a positive image of Burma’s culture, traditions and natural beauty, and would provide a boost for the economy and tourism.
“In the past, we did not have good infrastructure or good stadiums for sports,” he said. “Now we have good stadiums and players can practice well. Even after the SEA Games, Burmese athletes can gain experience and keep practicing [at the facilities]. I hope Burma will produce more good athletes.”
The idea to organize the SEA Games came in May 1958, with an aim to promote friendship among Southeast Asian nations. Thailand was the first country to host the Games.
Burma’s has chosen the slogan ‘Green, Clean and Friendship’ for this year’s event. But the country has tested its friendship with other competing nations after it allegedly cherry-picked sports that it plays best in order to improve its chances of obtaining medals.
“It’s ridiculous…whatever sports they want in, they get and the ones they’ve chosen carry too many medals,” Charoen Wattanasin of Thailand’s Olympic Committee told Reuters in a reaction in February.
Burmese organizers dropped popular regional sports such as tennis, beach volleyball and gymnastics, and included lesser-known traditional sports such kempo and vovinam (two martial arts forms popular in Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam) and chinlone. The latter is a traditional Burmese version of cane ball that is unknown elsewhere in the region.
At Wanna Theikdi Indoor Stadium, Aung Din, an advisor to the Ministry of Sports and Burma’s National Olympic Committee, watched a group of karate athletes train.“Burma’s athletics are now in the international spotlight,” he says. “It’s the highest stage we have ever had.”
However, he was concerned about a supposed tendency among some Burmese athletes and fans to react aggressively to disappointment, especially during football games.
“Sports are supposed to build better friendships and close relations between players. But some have the mindset that they need to win. It’s a one-sided desire. It’s our people’s weakness. It also harms the image of the government and leaders,” he said.
“Some fans get angry, shouting and becoming violent when their team loses. They break things in the stadium. We need to have the mindset of gentlemen.”