HANOI - The SEA Games returned to Vietnam for the first time in almost 20 years on Thursday night (May 12) with a dazzling light show and spectacular pyrotechnics witnessed by more than 20,000 spectators in a packed My Dinh Stadium.
Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc formally declared the 31st edition of the SEA Games open at the opening ceremony, before 11 of the host nation's athletes – led by track and field star Quach Thi Lan – lit the flame that symbolised the start of 12 days of sporting action in the country's capital.
Postponed from November 2021 owing to the pandemic, this will be the first SEA Games to be staged since Covid-19 emerged.
But Vietnam – which last hosted the Games in 2003 – like many Asean nations, is taking confident strides towards returning to normalcy.
Spectators have packed the stands at SEA Games events that started early – such as football and diving – and many have been spotted not wearing masks.
This was also the scene at My Dinh, where locals began filing in as dusk fell over the venue about 90 minutes before the ceremony's start.
Team Singapore, comprising 427 athletes who will compete across 33 sports, were represented by a 31-strong contingent for the ceremony. They comprised chef de mission (CDM) S. Sinnathurai, assistant CDM Asmah Hanim, flag-bearer Sheik Farhan and representatives from athletics, archery, cue sports, e-sports, jiu jitsu and silat. Singapore National Olympic Council president Tan Chuan-Jin was also present in the stadium to cheer on the contingent.
Some athletes have yet to arrive in the country as they adhere to travel schedules tied to their events, while others preferred to rest in preparation for early battles on Friday.
Silat exponent Farhan, who is seeking to retain his Class J title from 2017 (it was not contested in 2019), said: "The past two years have been tough.
"It's hard to believe that, after three years, we are here at the SEA Games. Walking with my teammates and countrymen into the My Dinh Stadium felt surreal. I felt immense pride carrying the flag for my nation."
Added Sinnathurai: "We are hopeful that this evening's spectacular opening ceremony will set the stage to an exciting SEA Games in Hanoi in the coming weeks ahead."
Thursday night's ceremony featured more than 1,000 performers, mainly local artists and art students, set against an impressive backdrop enhanced by augmented reality technology.
A slideshow of the 11 participating South-east Asian nations, as well as symbols for the 40 sports set to be contested at the Games, were displayed in the style of Vietnam's traditional Dong Ho folk art painting.
The SEA Games include Olympic sports such as athletics and swimming, but also regional ones like sepak takraw. Some unconventional sports, such as fin swimming in this edition, may also feature depending on the host nation.
Among the world-class athletes set to light the competition stage are Olympic champions Panipak Wongpattanakit (Thailand, taekwondo) and Hidilyn Diaz (Philippines, weightlifting), as well as Asian record holder Ernest Obiena (Philippines, pole vault).
For those watching back home in Singapore, the opening ceremony would be a precursor to what fans can expect when the SEA Games return in 2029. Just hours earlier, the Singapore National Olympic Council and Sport Singapore announced in a joint media statement that the Republic would host the biennial event in seven years' time.
The 2029 Games will mark the fifth time Singapore is organising the Games after playing host in 1973, 1983, 1993 and most recently in 2015, when it yielded its best performance ever – a haul of 84 gold, 73 silver and 102 bronze medals.