JAKARTA — The Southeast Asian Games officially open on Friday in Indonesia, where beleaguered organisers have admitted to battling a slew of problems including corruption, unfinished venues and poor ticket sales.
Eleven nations will contest sports from athletics and swimming to sepak takraw — a cross between football and volleyball — in the biennial Games held in the Indonesian capital Jakarta and Palembang in South Sumatra.
The opening ceremony takes place in the city of Palembang, host of the headline athletics and swimming events, and organisers are urging sceptical Indonesians to get behind the November 11-22 showpiece.
“It is still hard to sell a sporting event (in Indonesia),” Agus Mauro, a ticketing event official with organisers Inasoc, was quoted by The Jakarta Globe as saying.
“We’ve been advertising the Games on television, billboards… but it is still hard to sell match tickets.”
The football competition — supposedly one of the big draws — has failed to pull crowds bigger than a few thousand since it started on November 3, ahead of the official start.
The sparse stands have added to a sense of foreboding shrouding the 26th edition of the Games that has been beset by problems since the ruling party’s treasurer allegedly pocketed $3 million in bribes from a firm seeking tenders to build the athletes village, and then fled to Colombia with the spoils.
And the potential for a shambolic start to the proceedings, echoing the embarrassment heaped on India’s Commonwealth Games, has been heightened by the failure to finish venues or provide enough rooms for athletes and visitors.
Under the slogan “United and Rising”, the SEA Games were designed to showcase Indonesia’s rise as a regional powerhouse, with a booming economy backed by a massive 245 million population.
Defiant organisers say the show will go on.
“It’s God’s will that the Games will run smoothly. We’ve been working hard for a long time under difficult circumstances, but I’m confident the Games will go well,” Inasoc chairwoman Rita Subowo told AFP.
Jakarta has been bedecked with posters to plug the Games, with enthusiastic volunteers swarming the centre of the city handing out free roses and fliers to the passing traffic in a bid to drum up support.
Excited teams, dressed in distinctive national colours, filled major hotels and strolled around the central business district ahead of the opening, their minds on medal glory in the regional competition.
But reports from Palembang said last-minute work was still being carried out to ensure the venues were ready for the start of the bulk of the competitions on Saturday.
In Jakarta, about 500 kilometres (300 miles) away, there are concerns the capital’s gridlocked roads will be made impassable by the 12,000 athletes, officials and staff expected at the Games, as well as thousands of spectators.
Motorists are braced for painful journeys as lanes are reserved for athletes to get to Games venues on time, while schools will be closed for the duration to help clear vehicles from the streets.
Although it will be largely ignored by the rest of the world, the Games are big news in Southeast Asia, capturing the imagination of the competing nations, with dozens of gold medals and regional bragging rights up for grabs.