After a 22-year hiatus, Singapore's hosting of the SEA Games would already be a signal event. The significance of these games - the region's largest multisport event - is magnified because the extravaganza coincides with the nation's Golden Jubilee and a new state-of-the-art Sports Hub ready to act as the venue. Some 7,000 athletes and officials from 11 participating nations are in Singapore to compete in 36 sports. More than 5,000 Singaporeans will perform at Friday's opening ceremony before a crowd of 55,000. Many others will be cheering on the athletes over the next 10 days as they race and spar against one another, striving to outdo opponents and their own previous bests.
The beauty of sport is in its ability to bring people together in a shared celebration of physical skills, courage and perseverance, thereby overcoming differences that tend to divide. For these regional games, the benefit lies also in opening eyes and hearts to the sporting excellence and other strengths in neighbouring countries, about which Singaporeans may know less than they do of the more developed West. These biennial games were conceived as a means to help forge strong regional cooperation, understanding and unity within the South-east Asian community. In the 56 years since the first games in Bangkok in 1959, they have been the means of a regular, healthy boosting of people-to-people ties in a region where income differences remain large, with countries like Singapore and Brunei lying at one end and Laos and Timor Leste at the other. Yet, when they come together for the games, all athletes - whether from a small or a large country, a rich or a poor one - have a chance to shine and be judged on their own merits.
The games are also a chance for the region's young talent to gain early exposure to international competition at their doorstep. In Singapore, people have reminisced about the young stars of games past, including swimming golden girls Patricia Chan and Junie Sng, who started to compete at the age of 11. Fittingly, more than one in four of the 749 athletes in the Republic's contingent this year is 19 years old or younger, and the youngest is a boy of 11. Youth is the future of sports, as it is of nations and regions.
The medal tallies will be watched closely. Singapore will be hoping for reasons of national pride to eclipse its previous record gold medal haul of 50. However, medals are not everything. What matters also is that all do their best and demonstrate sportsmanship, fighting spirit and fairness. Singapore as the host country has the added responsibility of showing friends from the region that apart from running an efficient sporting event, its people can also be gracious hosts in every sense.