After months of planning and anticipation, the 28th SEA Games kicked off yesterday evening with a spectacular opening ceremony that drew more than 40,000 people to the new National Stadium, where Singapore sporting legends including C Kunalan, Glory Barnabas, K Jayamani and Ang Peng Siong were thrust into the limelight alongside the country’s current generation of athletes.
Various ASEAN leaders, including Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, were present as Singapore President Tony Tan declared the Games officially open, to raucous cheers.
The three-hour extravaganza of stunning light displays and singing was divided in five acts, showcasing the cultures and traditions of the region as well as the essence of unity, imagination, youth and the efforts of local sporting greats who had once done the nation proud.
And it was perhaps nostalgia that rippled through the crowd of young and old, with families in tow, as parents told their children of a time when the Games first starred at the old National Stadium in 1973, when sprint legend C Kunalan dashed up the steps with the torch, holding on stoically while the flames burnt his hand.
Or of the 1983 Games, and again in 1993 when the biennial event was previously held here, when swimming’s golden girl, Joscelin Yeo, completed a nine-gold feat at the Toa Payoh pool.
As the SEA Games return to Singapore after 22 years, the National Stadium, along with 30 other competition venues around the island, will bear witness as the Republic’s national athletes write their stories of triumph, tears and joy in what is also the biggest event yet as Singapore marks her Golden Jubilee.
As Singapore ushered in the region’s sporting tournament in fine fashion and welcomed over 7,000 athletes and officials here, more than 400 gold medals will be handed out before the Games close on June 16.
Yesterday, from giant trees and orang utans, to flying cranes, turtles and trains, oohs and aahs echoed through the stadium as the giant props came flying through the venue during the five-act show, while Nila the Games mascot provided the “cute” factor, parachuting into the stadium to the delight of the young ones in the crowd.
Amid the celebrations, Singapore also took time to pay tribute to its founding father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in a moving video tribute on his contributions to and thoughts on sports in Singapore. Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said in his speech at the opening ceremony: “On this night, we also remember to pay tribute to Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee played a key part in developing a sporting Singapore. He officially opened our former National Stadium in 1973, when Singapore first hosted the SEA Games. Tonight, we are gathered together once again at the same site in Kallang, but now in a different stadium — in this majestic Sports Hub.”
Touted as the curtain-raiser for the SG50 celebrations, the SEA Games’ main attraction will certainly be the 749 national athletes gunning to win over 50 gold medals to celebrate the nation’s 50th birthday. So it was no surprise that Team Singapore drew the loudest cheers as it made its way into the stadium, as the country and the show paid tribute to the country’s sporting legends, who featured alongside the star attraction of the games, swimmer Joseph Schooling.
But the whistles were reserved for football’s favourite son Fandi Ahmad, the final torchbearer in the inter-generational pairs of current and ex-athletes running the final lap in the stadium. Linking up with eldest son Irfan, the duo lit the Games cauldron at the Kallang waterfront, kicking off what was the start of the 36-sport event.
Talk ahead of the Games had some questioning the choice of Fandi — who has never won a Games gold medal — as the candidate to light the cauldron, but a return to the spiritual home of Singapore football was a special one for the 53-year-old.
“This is my greatest moment,” he said. “I’ve won lots of titles here and there, but this is the greatest one. This is even much more important than scoring a goal in the Malaysia Cup Final. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (And) it is special doing this with my son because in handing over, I hope he will represent the country in several years to come and hopefully, he can guide other youngsters to score.”