A Brief History of the SEA Games

The idea came from Laung Sukhumanaipradit, vice president of the Thai Olympic Committee, at the Third Asian Games held in Tokyo in 1958. The first SEAP (South East Asia Peninsular) Games took place in June 1959. Six countries: Burma, Kampuchea, Laos, Malaya, Thailand, and Vietnam, joined the organization.

As the idea took hold it became obvious that the countries in the region made worthy competitors. Similar population sizes and economies, common interests in sports and roughly equivalent achievements in ability. It would give the Third WOrld nations a chance to “raise their standards” before facing competitors from the larger, wealthier countries that participated in games on a global scale.

The first SEAP Games were held in Bangkok, Thailand, and included 12 disciplines: athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, cycling, football (soccer), tennis, shooting, swimming, table tennis, tennis, volleyball, and weightlifting. After the Bangkok games, the host country was determined on a rotating basis dependent on alphabetical order. The games took place every two years.

In 1961 they were held in Burma, but in 1963 Cambodia was prevented from hosting due to internal strife and a conflict with international sporting authorities. Laos begged off for lack of finances and Malaysia stepped into the breach.

The first decade saw continued conflict and iffy participation from war embroiled Indochina. Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam were unable to host and only sent minimal numbers when they did participate. Average attendance reached over 1,000 athletes and officials. Despite Singapore joining the games, the Second Indochina War threatened their continuation.

In 1969, Singapore suggested removing “Peninsular” from the name of the games and inviting the island nations of Southeast Asia to participate. The idea was opposed by Thailand and another decade passed with fizzling results. The war in Vietnam raged and the three Indochina countries pulled out of participating altogether. Then Burma declined to host the games citing economic difficulties. It seemed the games were doomed.

Then in 1977, Malaysia offered to host the games on condition that Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines be invited. Thailand again dragged its feet, reluctant to give up the original organization it founded, but their hesitation was overruled. The IX South East Asia Games were held that year in Kuala Lumpur with seven countries participating.

With new blood, the SEA Games continued. Attendance grew to first 2,000 athletes and, with the return of full teams from Laos and Vietnam in 1989, to 3,000, to more than 4,500 by the mid-90s. And then in 1995 Cambodia returned to the games to complete the roster of 10 nations.

The turn of the century saw the games continue to grow. Over 6,000 athletes participated and in 2009 Laos hosted the games for the first time, opening the host role–Brunei Darrusalem hosted in 1999–to all member nations. In 2003 East Timor joined the games, bringing the number of participating nations to 11.

This year the games are being held in Manila, Philippines. For the first time the opening ceremony will be held in an indoor stadium. The ceremony was produced by the same company that staged the opening of the London Olympics. Fifty-six sports, 513 events, comprise this year’s SEA Games. The most expensive event to be included is polo, for which Brunei shipped 50 horses. The budget for this year’s games is nearly $150 million.

Sixty years on, the XXX SEA Games offers proof of an existing and thriving ASEAN community. It is something that works, and, in light of ever increasing participation, it is something that portends to continue to work. It has long since achieved its original goals of preparing athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds to compete at an international level and has become a premier sporting event.


“First in SEA Games History/ Philippines to Stage Opening Ceremony in an Indoor Stadium.” Fox Sports Asia. November 20, 2019. https://www.foxsportsasia.com/sea-games/1200893/first-in-sea-games-history-philippines-to-stage-opening-ceremony-in-an-indoor-stadium/ (Accessed 26 November 2019).

“History of the SEA Games.” Team Malaysia. November 1, 2011. http://theseagames.blogspot.com/2011/11/history-of-sea-games.html (Accessed 26 November 2019).

“Southeast Asian Games.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/southeast_asian_games (Accessed 26 November 2019).

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