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Approaching storm, snafus cast pall on SEA Games

An approaching typhoon is threatening to complicate the hosting by the Philippines of the largest biennial games in South-east Asia, already marred by logistical foul-ups that President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to investigate.

Duterte on Saturday (Nov 30) welcomed the first few thousand athletes, coaches and sports officials from the region to the South-east Asian (SEA) Games in an opening ceremony featuring digital fireworks in a huge indoor arena in Bocaue town north of Manila. The VIPs included Brunei leader Hassanal Bolkiah, whose son is a member of the sultanate’s polo team.

A bus carrying Vietnamese athletes accidentally bumped the rear of another bus loaded with Laotian athletes on the way to the opening ceremony late Saturday, causing minor injuries and shattering the glass windows of one of the buses, police said.

More than 8,000 athletes and officials were expected to fly in for the games, which started in 1959 in the Thai capital of Bangkok with just a dozen sports. In the Philippines, 56 sports will be featured in 529 events, the largest number so far in the 11-nation competition, which will be held in more than 40 venues, including in the traffic-choked capital of Manila.

Singapore, who sent 666 athletes to the Games, was represented by a contingent of about 50 at the opening ceremony.

Flag bearer and squash player Samuel Kang said: "It was an amazing experience marching out as the flag bearer for the Singapore contingent.

"I feel really honoured to be given this privilege and it is a special moment not just for me, but for the entire squash fraternity in Singapore. I am really grateful to SNOC and everyone else who made this happen.

"I am looking forward to my three events and I hope to medal in each of them. Above all, I want to treasure this experience and give my all for Singapore."

About 27,000 police officers have been deployed to secure the 11-day games.

A typhoon was bearing down in the Pacific and forecasters expect it to blow into the main island of Luzon in the north early next week. The main sporting venues in Clark and Subic, former US military bases turned into popular leisure and commercial hubs north and northwest of Manila, are in or near Typhoon Kammuri’s path.

Kammuri was packing sustained winds of 150 kmh and gusts of up to 185 kmh as of late Friday but could still strengthen, forecasters said. The prospect of it becoming a super typhoon was unlikely but cannot be ruled out, they said.

“The contingency plan involves delay of the competition, the cancellation of competition,” Ramon Suzara, executive director of the organising committee, said at a news conference. Indoor competitions could proceed in bad weather if power is not cut, but the entry of spectators may be restricted, he said.

The threat posed by the typhoon comes after widely publicised complaints of athletes who flew in early for training and preliminary matches over long hours of waiting for shuttles at Manila’s airport, getting stuck in the chaotic traffic, food and hotel accommodation issues and unfinished facilities in the city.

An early football match between the men’s teams of Malaysia and Myanmar proceeded despite the absence of a functioning scoreboard at Manila’s Rizal Stadium, which opened in the 1930s but has undergone renovations, according to an Associated Press photographer who covered the game.

Duterte and his close political ally, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who heads the organising committee, separately apologised for the troubles.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief who supports Duterte’s anti-crime campaign, questioned the transfer of a huge amount of government funds to the organising committee, which is a private foundation, comparing it to a past corruption scandal where state funds were funneled to non-government groups before allegedly being pocketed by some lawmakers.

Suzara denied there was any irregularity, saying government auditors scrutinised how money was spent. He blamed the months-long delay in the passage of the national budget earlier this year for failure to complete the construction and renovation of some sports facilities on time.

Opposition Sen. Franklin Drilon questioned the propriety of spending about 50 million pesos (S$1.3 million) for the construction of a tower with a cauldron that will be lit in flames during the Games, saying the money for such extravagance could have been used to build classrooms for impoverished children.

“I ignore them because my stomach is titanium,” Suzara said in an interview, explaining how he has endured criticism to focus on preparations.

Cayetano said certain groups opposed to Duterte were trying to sabotage the Philippines’ hosting of the games. He did not elaborate.

Duterte pledged to investigate the mess and Cayetano expressed readiness to face a Senate investigation after the Games.

“There was a lot of money poured into this activity and I suppose that with that kind of money, you can run things smoothly,” Duterte said. But he admonished critics: “Do not create a firestorm now because we are in the thick of preparation ... I assure you I will investigate.” – AP

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