Reviewing the 2022 Vietnam SEA Games

Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines put in very strong efforts. But the size of the Games is getting out of hand. Smaller economies will soon be reluctant to host.

The SEA Games is one of my favorite multi-sport events because I got to participate in them as a coach in the 1985 staging in Bangkok. Eleven Southeast Asian countries participate in the biannual event and in the just completed Vietnam edition over 5400 athletes competed in 40 sports and contested 526 events. The Games were supposed to be held last year but were postponed due to the pandemic. The next staging is scheduled for 2023 in Cambodia but for some of these countries their next multi-sport event will be the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July.

The SEA Games is similar to a number of other regional sport events such as the Pan American and Pan Arab Games. They're seen as a stepping stone to larger competitions such as the Commonwealth Games, which feature competition between the 54 members of the British Commonwealth, and the Asian Games. The SEA Games are viewed as a lower tier competition, so some countries often enter younger athletes who have not had that much international experience to get them ready for larger competitions. The host team however usually goes all out with their entry in order to win the competition in front of the home crowd. This means that they not only send their best athletes but also as many athletes as is feasible for the spectacle. Note the final positions of the host countries in Table 1 for the last four editions of the Games.

You can see the pattern with the host finishing at or near the top of the final ranking. Thailand and Vietnam are the only two countries almost always in the top three whether hosting or not.

Personally, I think the idea that the Games are a lower tier event is changing. There are now some world class athletes participating regularly and the level of competition is consistent and getting better every time the event is staged.

Final results

As expected Vietnam took top honors in the Games, which were conducted mostly in and around Hanoi. Table 2 shows the final 5-3-1 points tally, which differs slightly from the gold medal only count discussed in Asian media outlets. Scoring by points only made a difference in determining 10th and 11th places with Brunei and Timor-Leste flipping spots when points were used. Other rankings mirrored the gold medal tally.

Table 3 shows the points earned per million population (PPM). This metric should be considered along with team size because comparison to population only usually just skews the result. However, the Games organizing committee did not provide specific information for teams size or sex breakdowns.

Table 4 shows the ratio of points scored to GDP. Please note that while Tables 3 and 4 indicate moderate correlation between their variables (see table r values) the p values show that there is no statistical significance to either analysis.

Table 5 shows the points per athlete calculation (PPA). Typically the PPA metric tends to favor smaller teams because the number of points scored by athletes on those teams is relatively higher compared to larger contingents. Larger teams, especially the host, enter a number of second tier athletes who are there mainly to gain experience and usually don't win medals, and thus don't score any points. In this case, however, the PPA shows a remarkably strong performance by the top four teams.

Historically Vietnam has had high PPAs even when not hosting. In 2017 and 2019 it turned in PPAs of 1.08 and 1.00 respectively while placing second both times. But it's very unusual for the top four teams to have PPAs above 1.0. This represents a very strong contingent from the top four teams. And Singapore isn't too far behind with a 0.94 PPA.

Note that the host country website did not provide detailed information about team size or sex breakdowns, the number of athletes for each country in Table 5 came from a Wikipedia search.

There are too many sports in the program

At least 22 sports must be contested in each staging of the SEA Games. Athletics and aquatics are required and choices from various other categories fill out the minimum program. However, there is no maximum limit to the number of sports and host countries have traditionally had some leeway in adding and removing sports to the biannual program.

In 2017 Malaysia hosted 38 sports; in 2019 the Philippines hosted 56 sports; and in the just completed Games in Vietnam 40 sports were contested. While additional sports are added ostensibly to showcase new, upcoming, or culturally significant activities, in reality the additions aid the host country in winning more gold medals. Consequently the Games often become an overblown hodgepodge of sports designed to assure that the host country takes the majority of gold medals.

Manipulating the Games program has to be approved, of course, but hosts have an inordinate amount of positional power when the entire event depends on their efforts. It's natural to suspect that some hosts engineer the program to work in their favor, but this is not the only source of criticism for the Games sport line-up. The larger the program gets the more of an economic burden it places on the host country. Hosts must construct new facilities or upgrade old ones, house an increased number of athletes, and deal with transport congestion in some of the largest cities in Southeast Asia. Countries with smaller economies are naturally reluctant to host the event and often pass on their turn in the informal hosting rotation.

Hopefully, the Sea Games Federation, the governing body for the event, will eventually reign in the ever increasing size of the program by raising the number of required sports -- currently only athletics and aquatics are required -- and then limiting the number a host is allowed to add to the program. Allowing hosts to add obscure local sports does little, if anything, to enhance overall sport development in the region and only reinforces the view that the SEA Games are a second tier competition. Under current regulations the program must have at least 22 sports. One wonders how Vietnam came up with 40 sports, or 56 in the Philippines in 2019. I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees that this is getting out of hand and that the connection between sport development and the SEA Games is weakening in favor of hosts simply strategizing how to win more medals by adding events they can do well in. By limiting the number of events the Games will be more meaningful and countries with smaller economies will be more enthusiastic to host in the future.