As Games approach, Southeast Asia fears collapse

Shoddy management and a lack of funds look set to condemn Southeast Asia to yet another dismal Olympics, with one expert warning the region's sport even faces "collapse" without a drastic re-think.

Home to around 600 million people, surging economies and a massive sporting fanbase, the group of nations stretching from Myanmar to Indonesia ought to be catching the eye at the world's greatest sporting event.

Instead, there are few title contenders making the trip to London, as enduring poverty, threadbare facilities, skewed funding and a focus on non-Olympic sports strangle the pipeline of talent.

There are some bright spots: Malaysia boasts the world's second ranked badminton player, Lee Chong-Wei, while Indonesia will look to maintain its record of a gold for its shuttlers at every Games since 1992.

Thailand offers a smattering of weightlifters; the Philippines, whose vaunted boxers are mainly chasing professional riches, has its hopes pinned to its shooters; and Singapore will send some strong swimmers and 2008 team table tennis silver medallist Feng Tianwei.

Yet among the 11 nations who contest the regional showpiece Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, there are no realistic medal prospects in the headline track and field events.

The statistics make grim reading -- Southeast Asian nations harvested just a dozen medals combined in Beijing four years ago.

It was a paltry return given the region's size, put further into context by the 13 podium places claimed by sporting minnow Kazakhstan.

"The risk is that sport in our region collapses," warns Santiparb Tejavanija, an advisor to the Olympic Council of Asia.

"If we cannot nurture the best young people, we will be unable to compete in the long term. Each year that passes, another group of potential athletes disappears."

The reasons for the poor harvest of talent are myriad, but experts say they pivot around mismanagement and corruption, illustrated by massive graft relating to construction projects at last year's SEA Games in Indonesia.

Under-investment results in a lack of facilities, financing and top-level coaching, and short-changes athletes and the patriotic millions they represent, explains Santiparb.

There are also arguments that smaller physiques put would-be Southeast Asian stars at a disadvantage in many disciplines, such as the short distance track events.

But the bigger picture, according to Greg Wilson, an Australian advising the Indonesian Olympic Committee (KOI), is that a lack of ambition by poorly run sporting bodies means any funding goes to regional, not global, competition.

"The Olympics was not on the radar for many athletes even six months before the London Games," he says, explaining that cash incentives are only offered to Indonesian athletes to prepare for the SEA Games and domestic competition.

"They don't think they'll make Olympic qualifications, so they look inward."

Indonesian gold medallists were awarded $22,000 for "mediocre success" at the SEA Games rather than given incentives to reach the higher mark of qualifying for the Olympics, says Wilson.

Others lament a preoccupation with traditional sports which are virtually unknown outside the region, such as pencak silat and sepak takraw, and deflect resources from qualifying for the Games.

"We really need to change the mindset -- we should focus only on favourable (Olympic) sports, instead of some random ones," Indonesian Olympic Committee (KOI) chairwoman Rita Subowo recently told the Jakarta Post.

Santiparb is scathing about the situation, decrying the region's sports fans for mistakenly "going crazy for sports which they can't even spell".

"And all the time the region continues to fall further behind," adds the Thai.

His voice is one among a growing clamour for change as many weary of the region's athletes playing rank underdogs on the global stage.

But the region's sporting travails may prove insurmountable, at least in the short term.

Sport is a sideshow to survival in an area which, despite its fast pace of economic growth, remains desperately poor in many parts.

Bad healthcare and diet, high rates of smoking and the fact many people hold down several jobs preclude mass participation in sport, draining the pool of available talent.

At the same time there is a lack of the advanced sporting infrastructure enjoyed by similarly poor nations with a rich sporting history -- such as the ex-Soviet bloc countries, or nations like Jamaica or Kenya.

However, the outlook is not entirely gloomy.

Indonesia (badminton) and Thailand (weightlifting) have shown success within particular disciplines can inspire young athletes and catalyse more funding, creating a conveyor belt of potential champions relatively quickly.

"London could be the watershed, where people finally say 'hang on, why are we so far behind the rest of the world?'" adds Wilson.

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