Duterte calls for probe after chaotic SEA Games build-up

James Edgar - Agence France-Presse
Duterte calls for probe after chaotic SEA Games build-up
In this photo taken on November 19, 2019, Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte talks during a late-night press conference at Malacanang Palace in Manila.
Ted Aljibe / AFPI

CLARK – President Rodrigo Duterte has called for a probe into the preparations for the Southeast Asian Games, which start on Saturday after a messy build-up marked by last-minute construction and logistical problems.

Complaints over transport, accommodation and food stacked up as thousands of athletes flood in for the biggest ever edition of the Games, which are also threatened by an approaching typhoon forecast to hit the northern Philippines early next week.

Red-faced organizers apologized and promised to do better, but after criticism grew under a mocking hashtag, #SEAGamesfail, Duterte waded into the furor late Thursday.

"I said let us investigate. Do not create a firestorm now because we are in the thick of preparations," he told reporters.

"To me personally there was a lot of money poured into this activity," he added. "Now I suppose that with that kind of money you can run things smoothly. Apparently, maybe something went wrong."

Earlier, however, the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC) chairman Alan Peter Cayetano remained upbeat.

"First and foremost, this is going to be a great hosting," he said. "You will be very, very proud of your country, of your athletes once the SEA Games are over."

In matters out of its own hands, the Philippines is also bracing for a typhoon which national forecasters warn is steadily intensifying.

PAGASA said Typhoon Kammuri — which is packing gusts of 170 kilometers (87 miles) per hour and maximum sustained winds of 140 kph — is presently heading right for Games venues in the north of the country and is expected to make landfall on Tuesday.

Tight security

This year's Games in Clark, Manila and Subic, which run through to December 11, are particularly complex with a record 56 sports across dozens of venues that are in some cases hours' drive apart, even before Manila's notorious gridlock traffic is factored in.

The vast scale of the multi-sport event has included erecting a massive sports complex in New Clark City, which is at least two hours' drive north from the capital.

The Philippines' path toward Saturday's opening ceremony — an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the island nation — has been tortuous from the start.

Manila in July 2017 suddenly pulled out of hosting the Games to focus on rebuilding the southern city of Marawi which was heavily damaged during siege by jihadists.

But officials made a U-turn just one month later after securing backing from Duterte.

Security remains a top concern, and police have increased visibility at nightspots near competition venues and suspended Filipinos' right to carry firearms outside their homes.

Almost 16,000 policemen are deployed in various parts of greater Manila, particularly in the venues and hotels where athletes and other delegations are billeted. 

Home advantage

The Philippines, which last hosted the biennial games in 2005, is aiming to win the most medals, and history is on their side: seven of the last 11 SEA Games hosts have topped the table, reflecting the tradition of rewriting the sporting program to suit local strengths.

Malaysia topped the table two years ago with home advantage in Kuala Lumpur, ahead of Thailand and Vietnam, with the Philippines in sixth place.

Around 8,750 athletes and team officials are expected at this year's edition, and there are some 12,000 volunteers. Organizers hope more than 500 million viewers will tune in on TV.

In an eclectic program, Olympic sports like swimming and athletics sit side-by-side with regional favourites like martial arts pencak silat, arnis and wushu, and this year athletes will even battle an obstacle race course in Manila.

Medals will be awarde in eSports — a first for a multi-sport competition sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, after the discipline featured as a demonstration sport at last year's Asian Games in Jakarta.

Southeast Asia nations rarely shine at the Olympics, but the region's two gold medalists from Rio 2016 — Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling and Vietnamese shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh — are among the athletes competing in the Philippines.

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