SEA Games: KL will be a defining moment for South-east Asian sports with Malaysia setting a 111-gold medal target

National flags of participating countries are seen after the SEA Games welcome ceremony and flag raising for participating nations held at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Aug 16, 2017.
National flags of participating countries are seen after the SEA Games welcome ceremony and flag raising for participating nations held at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Aug 16, 2017.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

(BERNAMA)    The 29th SEA Games opens on Saturday (Aug 19), promising a spectacular chase for gold that will be boosted by the exciting presence of its biggest gathering of world champions and Olympic medallists who have burst onto the big stage in the last two years to bring rare sporting glory to the region.

After a 16-year lapse, the biennial event is back on Malaysian soil, making Kuala Lumpur the host city for a record six times and brings together 4,900 athletes from 11 countries to vie for 404 gold medals in 38 sports, with ice skating, ice hockey, indoor hockey and cricket being held for the first time.

The fight for overall supremacy should be between Malaysia and Thailand, who dominated four of the last five Games.

Malaysia wants 111 gold medals to make good of the home ground advantage and mark their reign as the hosts, a task that calls for the 844 home athletes to overhaul their 62 gold medals and fourth-placed finish in Singapore two years ago.

The Games will also test the progress of their podium programme that was set up with next year's Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in mind,  and ultimately to win Malaysia's first Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2020.

Despite their prowess and new-found fame, Malaysian world champions keirin cyclist Azizulhasni Awang, diving queen Cheong Jun Hoong and silat exponent Mohd Al-Jufferi Jamari,  and Pandelela Rinong, the country's first female Olympic medallist at the 2012 London Olympics, are not giving the KL Games a miss.

Pandelela and Jun Hoong also share a Rio Games silver in the women's synchronised 10m platform.

Two other big draws include Rio Games champions - swimmer Joseph Schooling of Singapore and sharp shooter Hoang  Xuan Vinh of Vietnam.

Schooling, winner of nine golds in 2015, has been pencilled in for six events including his pet 100m butterfly, while Hoang is competing in the 10m air pistol event where he was the bronze medallist at the last edition before striking gold in Rio.

In setting their 111-gold target, Malaysia will seek to draw inspiration from the 2001 Games when they were also the hosts and smashed the century mark for the first time to finish overall champions with 111 gold medals.

Azizulhasni, Jun Hoong and Pandelela will lead the charge with an eye on a clean sweep of the diving and men's track cycling events, comprising 26 gold medals in total.  

Malaysia also have high gold medal hopes in silat, wushu, karate, rhythmic gymnastics, lawn bowls sailing, squash, archery, bowling and athletics.

The emergence of 19-year-old Khairul Hafiz Jantan, who has broken both national 100m and 200m records, has given hope that Malaysia can finally lay claim to the crown as having the fastest man in South-east Asia since Nazmizan Muhammad s triumph back in 2003 in Vietnam.

Thailand have set their sights on 100 gold medals and have proved at past Games that they are up to the mark, having landed 107 gold medals at the 2013 Games in Myanmar.

Their greatest strengths are in athletics and shooting, with both sports accounting for a third of their 95-gold haul in Singapore, including the coveted men's football title which they will look to retain for a hat-trick of wins.  

The Thais are also the team to beat in tennis, petanque and women's badminton.

Vietnam, the up-and-coming force in the region, want a top-three finish again after placing third behind Thailand and Singapore the last time with 73 gold medals.

Besides Hoang, the Vietnamese will be counting on their much-decorated female swimmer Thi Anh Vien, who will be competing in 11 events, after her eight-gold feat in 2015.

Singapore have sent their largest contingent of 569 athletes to compete in 35 sports and expect to record their biggest victories at the National Aquatic Centre.  

Schooling and company stormed away with 23 of 38 swimming titles the last time, leaving a trail of shattered Games records behind.

Indonesia and the Philippines are looking to better their performance to over 50 gold medals each.

The other countries in the reckoning include Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste. 

The Indonesians, overall Games champions for 10 times, are using KL as a stepping stone for next year's Asian Games which they will host.

With their respective badminton stars away for the World Championships in Scotland, Indonesia and Malaysia will tussle to produce new champions in men's badminton.