MEDAL tallies aside, what makes regional contests of physical prowess like the SEA Games stand out is sportsmanship. All athletes want to win but how they win and what they do in the face of defeat often speak more eloquently to audiences than the colour of their haul, whether bronze, silver or gold.
When Singapore's lone silat finalist Nur Alfian Juma'en won the nation's 80th gold medal, it was the way he fought on despite a foot injury to defeat a world champion that inspired spectators. The women's 4x100m relay team won no medal but displayed grace in defeat, congratulating their Malaysian rivals who beat them by a hair's breadth to the bronze. In the pool, where Singapore tends to dominate, it was 19-year-old Nguyen Thi Anh Vien from Vietnam who stunned the crowds. Despite not being backed by a team, she powered her way to eight individual golds. For her and Singapore swimming star Joseph Schooling, these games may well be a prelude to bigger, better things.
Regional events like the SEA Games, a biennial contest among 11 countries, cannot hope to compete with the Olympics in terms of glamour or sheer performance level. That was reflected in some countries sending their second-tier teams in sports that they excel in, as their top players were involved in world championship-level playoffs elsewhere. But smaller games have a magic all their own, serving to nurture and deepen bonds between neighbouring peoples, whose relations are often complicated by webs of economic dependence and competition. Monday night's football final exemplified this coming together for the sake of sports. Myanmar and Thai workers based here headed for the National Stadium to cheer on their national teams. They were joined by Singaporeans who were there for the love of the beautiful game. Together, they enjoyed the facilities and ambience of the new stadium.
When it comes to medal standings, a country's population size, wealth and capacity to develop a sporting culture clearly matter. Thailand and Singapore were in a two-horse race to top the table, with the Thais emerging on top. Cambodia's sepak takraw team were thrilled to win their nation's only gold at these games. Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste trailed the rest this time around, but their representatives picked up valuable competition experience for the future. Brunei's pair of teenage sailors, the first in years from their nation, plan to be back for the 2017 games.
Win, lose or draw, these games give people a reason to come together to celebrate the beauty of the sporting spirit. Singaporeans' gracious hosting of the event, too, helped make the regional meet a memorable one.