SINGAPORE — The SEA Games has arrived again - delayed but still on, with all the thrills, all the pageantry, and all the nationalistic celebrations set to descend upon Southeast Asia in the next 12 days.
Yet, all around is also a sense of relief that the biennial regional sports extravaganza did not become the second edition to be cancelled in the Games' 63-year history.
Back in 1963, the Games was awarded to Cambodia, but was eventually scrapped due to the volatile political situation in the country. The four-year gap between the 1961 Yangon Games and the 1965 Kuala Lumpur Games remains the longest period in which the SEA Games was not being held.
And this Hanoi SEA Games came really close to being cancelled due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic that had ravaged much of the world in the last two years, and had already caused the Games to be postponed from last December to this month.
Even in March, Vietnam has had to call off sports events such as the International Badminton Challenge tournament - which it had already postponed thrice - as it battles rising number of cases and deaths due to the wave of Omicron infections.
With the COVID variant also affecting the other participating nations around the turn of the year, few would have been vehemently against any move to further postpone or even scrap this 31st edition of the Games.
And yet, here we are, ready to applaud the thousands of athletes into the My Dinh National Stadium for the opening ceremony on Thursday night (12 May).
Subdued atmosphere amid COVID jitters
Yet, even as the cauldron is set to be lit, this SEA Games already feels more subdued than before.
Instead of the traditional powerhouses declaring their ambitions to top the medal table, there are instead weary concessions that hosts Vietnam are likely to win the most gold medals, and that second spot is the best that the other nations can hope for.
Medal targets have been revised down, if they are even set at all. And the travelling contingents seem more preoccupied about keeping their athletes safe from COVID infections, rather than pushing them to scale their sporting heights in Hanoi.
Such is what two years of battling the coronavirus will do the sporting fraternity. With most of the international sports competitions grinding to a halt amid the pandemic, everything was thrown out of whack - athletes were unable to train and compete regularly, sports associations were unable to gauge and scout for talents, and sports fans, well, they have more pressing issues amid the pandemic than watching their favourite sports.
As the region makes its cautious steps out of the COVID curbs and restrictions, this SEA Games feels just as tentative. Yes, let's hold a mass sporting event full of international athletes, but let's also not let our guard down and be exposed to the risks of infection.
Yet, despite all the cautiousness, there have already been a few unfortunate athletes who caught the coronavirus just before the Games, and had to endure the agony of withdrawing from the competition. One of them is Singapore golfer Justin Kuk, who lamented, "I'm truly disappointed. I was looking forward to my first SEA Games. But I suppose the pandemic can hit anyone."
Athletes undeterred by disruptions
It has certainly been a tumultuous two years for the athletes of this region. Some have quit from their chosen sports amid all the uncertainties, and moved on to their next careers. Others have suffered dips in forms as their training regimens got disrupted.
Yet, there are also many debutants at this Hanoi Games. Singapore, for instance, has 243 debutants out of its 427 participating athletes - more than half of its travelling contingent. Amid the COVID turmoil, these athletes have seized their opportunities in qualifying for this entry-level major Games.
And that's the beauty of the SEA Games: its inclusivity. Very few athletes in this region can make it all the way to the pinnacle of the Olympics, but they can experience the joy of winning medals at this regional meet every two years.
So while Joseph Schooling is contemplating on making this edition the final SEA Games outing of his extraordinary career, Loh Kean Yew will be mulling over how to deal having a target on his back as the reigning world champion amid a strong badminton field at the Games.
And so, despite the usual criticism trotted out every two years on the SEA Games' relatively-low standards as well as its inclusion of obscure and arcane sports, the biennial meet remains beloved in Southeast Asia precisely because of these characteristics. Any athlete from any sport can aspire to take part at this Games.
So no matter how much the Games has been affected by COVID, it is easy to still be swept up by its distinct charms. Let the Games begin, indeed.