Fireworks are set off during the opening ceremony of the 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. (EPA Photo)
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia staged a dazzling party at the new-look Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Saturday evening to officially open the 29th South East Asian Games.
The lavish ceremony in front of 85,000 spectators had a special focus on honouring past sporting heroes and legends, while also celebrating the stars of the future.
In keeping with the theme, the flag bearer for the Thailand contingent was one of the country’s most decorated athletes, sepak takraw star Pornchai Kaokaew. The 36-year-old veteran has won eight Asian Games gold medals and is competing in his ninth SEA Games.
The Malaysian team, parading close to 900 athletes and led by world champion Azizulhasni Awang, Cheong Jun Hoong and Mohd Al-Jufri Jameri, received the loudest cheer from spectators as they entered into the stadium.
The Games, which feature close to 7,000 athletes and officials, end on Aug 30. The newly refurbished National Stadium will be the focus of attention for many of the 404 events in 38 sports over the next 12 days.
Malaysia and Thailand are expected to battle it out for the overall title, but the hosts are atop the in the early going with 16 medals including seven golds so far. Singapore has nine medals including three golds, Thailand seven including three golds, and Indonesia eight medals with two golds.
Thailand won two of its gold medals on Saturday with the men prevailing in sepak takraw and the women winning decisively in water polo.
The convincing 3-0 win in men’s sepak takraw team regu came over Malaysia in the final match of the round-robin competition at Titiwangsa Stadium.
Backed by some 1,000 supporters, Malaysia failed to turn the tables on the 12-time champions and had to settle for the bronze medal. Indonesia registered a 3-0 win over Brunei who shared the bronze with Malaysia.
The Thai women’s water polo team asserted their prowess with a 5-1 win over Singapore to take the gold at the National Aquatic Centre in Bukit Jalil on Saturday.
The Thais were in their element throughout the match, adopting defensive and counterattack strategies to deny and frustrate the Singaporeans.
“Our defence were awesome today. The Singaporeans tried hard to dominate the play and managed to keep our counter attacks at bay,” said Thailand coach Daniele Ferri. “I have to congratulate them as they continuously frustrated us in our attacks but we managed to keep our composure and strike hard when opportunities arose.”
Malaysia has finished on top of the medal table only once, the last time it held the biennial competition, and is hoping to match the 111 golds it won on home ground in 2001.
Six of the last 10 SEA Games hosts have topped the table, reflecting the tradition of rewriting the sporting programme to suit local strengths.
Thailand topped the 2015 Games in Singapore with 95 golds, well ahead of fourth-placed Malaysia’s 62. The country’s sports associations have set a goal of 109 gold medals in Kuala Lumpur, but Thai delegation chief Thana Chaiprasit said it might take at least 120 golds to beat Malaysia for the overall crown.