NAYPYITAW — Yangon was once Southeast Asia’s aviation hub, pre-junta Myanmar had probably the region’s best education system, and the country’s living standards were as good as those of any of its neighbors. All that changed, however, after a 1962 coup. Gen Ne Win’s search for the “Burmese Way to Socialism” led to Myanmar’s rapid economic decline, leaving it a moth-eaten economic outlier where nowadays only a quarter of the population has electricity.
That fall from grace was also mirrored in the country’s sporting performance. In the 1960s, Myanmar topped the SEA Games medal table twice, and as late as 1979, it managed a third place on the medal-winners ranking. For the most part, however, since the SEA Games were last held in Myanmar in 1969, the country has slipped into sporting oblivion, falling way behind neighbors such as Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and, more recently, Vietnam, who all have done well at the SEA Games.
“The government didn’t support the people who play sports or assist talented young people to develop their sport abilities,” U Khin Maung Htwe, a long-time sports journalist in Yangon, told The Irrawaddy. “Our country had a good name in the past for sports, but during the military era, the government wanted us to be isolated.”
Myanmar’s total haul of SEA Games medals over the decades now stands at 1,858, putting it seventh overall, far behind leader Thailand’s 5,025 medals or second-placed Indonesia’s 4,410.
But history shows that the host country usually does well, often topping the medals tables or finishing in the top three—though the host’s haul is often abetted by some sharp pre-games arrangements, such as pushing for the inclusion of local sports that other countries are not familiar with.
Not wanting to break with history, it seems, Myanmar was itself accused by other countries of trying to gerrymander the event roster to suit itself. The allegations stung, and Dr. Myat Thura Soe, international relations secretary at the Myanmar National Olympic Committee, sought to counter barbs thrown at the host country from Thailand and the Philippines.
“We had a meeting between all the countries early in 2013 and we decided between us all then what sports to include,” he told The Irrawaddy, speaking at a hectic office in the interior of the Wunna Theikdi Stadium in Naypyitaw, a new 30,000-seat venue where the 2013 SEA Games track and field events will be held.
Despite Myanmar compromising with angry rivals on what sports to include, Dr. Myat Thura Soe is hopeful that Myanmar can nonetheless do well at the SEA Games, though he conceded that competing with countries such as Thailand and Indonesia at the top of the medals board might be a step too far, for now at least.
What Myanmar’s sports officials hope for, however, is more long-term: that hosting the Games can jump-start the country’s sporting engine and help Myanmar move back towards the top of the Southeast Asian pile.
“We think of the example of Vietnam,” said Dr. Myat Thura Soe. “After they hosted the SEA Games, they went up to the top level in Southeast Asia.”
Vietnam hosted the SEA Games for the first time in 2003, topping the medals table that year with 183 golds, and since then has been a consistent top-three SEA Games finisher along with Indonesia and Thailand.
“In 2001, Myanmar and Vietnam were almost the same level, but now they have progressed way ahead of us,” said Dr. Myat Thura Soe.
Central to the country’s plans for enhanced sporting prowess in the years to come are the pristine new facilities in Naypyitaw, all specially built for the Games. The Wunna Theikdi Stadium is the centerpiece of a bigger complex that includes an Olympic-standard swimming pool and diving area, as well as an 11,000-seat indoor stadium for basketball and smaller facilities for various martial arts.
The SEA Games men’s football tournament, likely to be the main spectator draw at the Games, will be staged a 30-minute drive away along desolate football-pitch-wide highways, in another 30,000-seat stadium on a hill between Naypyitaw’s military museum and the city’s zoo.
Many of the SEA Games facilities were built by Max Myanmar, the sprawling conglomerate headed by U Zaw Zaw, a tycoon long sanctioned by the United States for his ties to Myanmar’s old army regime. Max Myanmar was, however, ranked in the top 10 in a recent listing of the country’s taxpaying companies—a sign to some of a budding corporate transparency in a country long known for inscrutable business dealings.
“We started in 2010. At the time, it was all forest here,” said U Khin Maung Kywe, Max Myanmar’s construction director, speaking from the viewing area of the Wunna Theikdi Stadium, where President U Thein Sein was joined by other regional heads of government for the SEA Games opening ceremony on Dec. 11.
But looking out over the stadium—a white and silver amphitheater baking in the sun—one had to wonder how this and other venues could be put to use once the Games are over.
Here and there in Naypyitaw, there are statues of white elephants, which according to Myanmar lore signify that a just and powerful king sits on the throne. But will the lavish new sporting facilities in Naypyitaw really help Myanmar reclaim its former athletic glory, or will they turn out to be white elephants of a far less auspicious kind?
So far, the government is short on specifics about what it will do with the new facilities, apart from hand them over to the Sports Ministry. But officials say they won’t repeat the mistakes of Laos, which as host of the 2009 SEA Games built new stadiums in the capital Vientiane, only to let them fall into disrepair after the Games were over.
Dr. Myat Thura Soe said that one option is to make Myanmar’s world-class sporting venues available to foreign athletes. “Singapore has expressed an interest,” he said, noting that the city-state doesn’t have much space for big sports training grounds.
“This will help us in Myanmar, as we can have joint training with other athletes,” he said. “We want the SEA Games to be a boost for Myanmar’s sporting future.”
Additional reporting by Htet Naing Zaw.
This story was first published in the December 2013 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.