Laos wins rave reviews for SEA Games

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VIENTIANE, Laos (AP) — A coup of sorts is under way in dirt poor, Communist-ruled Laos: contrary to dire predictions, it’s staging the biggest sporting event in its history to rave reviews.

And in the process, its hoping to hoist itself up a few rungs from its lowly position on the international sports ladder.

With the 11-nation Southeast Asian Games in its final phase, assessments by coaches, athletes and officials of the event’s facilities, organization and sporting spirit have been uniformly positive, if not ecstatic.

This in a country which ranks among the world’s poorest (176 of 210 on the World Bank’s list), sent only four athletes to the 2008 Beijing Olympics (the International Olympic Committee paid for their tracksuits and plane tickets) and where until not long ago runners trained in a dung-strewn stadium which doubled as a cattle grazing ground.

“Terrific. I can’t find any faults with these games,” said Frantisek Petrovic, the Slovak coach of Malaysia’s track team at the new 20,000-seat main stadium, ringed by forests and farms on Vientiane’s outskirts.

“It is natural they are apprehensive and nervous but at the same time they are so disciplined and open to change and advice,” said Rabi Rajkarnikar, a technical official with the Asian Athletics Association monitoring the games. “They listen and are willing to run around and make changes. They have all the equipment for other championships in the future. They are doing fantastically well.”

Doubts were initially expressed that Laos, starting with virtually no facilities or experience, could stage the 25th version of the biennial event. While hardly Olympian in scale, the games have brought together 4,800 athletes from a region of 600 million people.

To the ire of Malaysian Sports Minister Seri Ismail Sabri Yakob — who predicted the Vientiane games would turn into a “full-fledged circus” — Laos scaled down the number of sports to 28 from a bloated 43 at the last games in Thailand.

While the number conforms to the Olympic standard — 26 are currently recognized as official sports at summer games — it excludes such mainstream sports as basketball, gymnastics and sailing. Added were dubious ones like petanque, the French version of lawn bowls which harkens back to Laos’ colonial past. The landlocked nation retained beach volleyball, hauling sand in from the banks of the Mekong River.

Organizers then sought help from their friends. Vietnam financed the $19 million athletes village, Thailand provided technical expertise and more funding came from Japan, South Korea and Brunei.

In a deal still shrouded by controversy and secrecy, China built the $100 million main stadium complex in exchange for lease on land near Vientiane to construct an entire satellite city. Angry rumors that thousands of Chinese would settle there forced the government to scale down the project.

“SEA Games fever leads me to believe Lao sports will improve,” said Somsavat Lengsavad, the organizing committee chairman, failing to mention that public enthusiasm for the games has far outstripped that exhibited at events staged to celebrate communism.

To reach the next step, sports officials say Laos needs to engage in more high-level competition, get technical expertise in training and nutrition, maintain facilities the games have put into place, expand youth sports programs and obtain more general support from the International Olympic Committee and other international sports organizations.

In football — by far the most popular event — Laos made it to the semifinals before going down to Malaysia 3-1, and in recent years has defeated some strong regional opponents. But the isolated nationt has never entered the World Cup, Asian Cup or the Asian Games and ranks 174 out of 203 in standings of FIFA — albeit up from a low of 190.

What also impresses many here is the atmosphere the Lao created, a throwback to the days before big sporting events became overly driven by sponsors, television and prima donna stars. In Vientiane, events were staffed by high school and college student volunteers, the women dressed in traditional sarongs.

When Thailand’s Noengruthai Chaipech equaled the Asian Games record in women’s high jump, a reporter was able to stroll onto the field for an interview right after she got off the bag.

Little was off-limits at the weightlifting, where competitors — some of them world champions — mingled freely with spectators, coaches and reporters, creating a communication between the athletes and audience.

Winners came down from the stage after the medals ceremonies to sit with teammates and spectators, posing at length for photographs with both. One could even stroll into the warm-up room.

At the badminton, an Austrian man who has collected more than 20,000 autographs of Olympic medal winners, handed a photograph to an Indonesian star who smilingly obliged with his signature.

“I’ve stopped going to the Olympics. There is just too much security now. You can’t get close to the athletes,” said Franz Schell. “Here, there’s no problem.”

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