KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 19, (AFP): Teenage diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri flew through Malaysia’s national stadium in a brave stunt to light the cauldron at the climax of a glittering Southeast Asian Games opening ceremony on Saturday.
The 18-year-old rising star was suspended high above the Bukit Jalil stadium floor in Kuala Lumpur, carrying a flaming torch, at the end of the four-hour extravaganza.
Earlier a flying tiger, shiny gold suits and a parade of marching bands took centre stage as the two-week Games opened in a blaze of colour.
More than 4,000 athletes from 11 nations strode into the newly refurbished, 87,000-capacity Bukit Jalil stadium, which was sold out for the vibrant show.
Torrential rain early on failed to dampen enthusiasm as the hosts put on an entertaining spectacle before Malaysia’s king, Sultan Muhammad V, declared the Games open.
About 4,200 athletes are competing for 404 gold medals in sports ranging from boxing and equestrianism to petanque, speed skating and lawn bowls at the popular and unique SEA Games.
Games mascot Rimau, a fluffy Malayan tiger, flew into the stadium on a wire, after LED-lit pedal cars and flag-wavers wearing glittering gold suits had entertained the crowd.
Fans watched video messages from Malaysia’s badminton and squash stars Lee Chong Wei and Nicol David, who are busy with world championships commitments, and cheered the succession of marching bands.
After the Games had been declared open, the stadium erupted in song as hundreds of dancers waving silver palm trees and waving red-lit parasols gave the event a carnival atmosphere.
Olympic silver medal-winning diver Pandelela Rinong passed the flaming torch to Nur Dhabita, who took off slowly towards the 40-foot (12-metre) cauldron and lit it, setting off a blaze of fireworks.
The biennial SEA Games, formerly the Southeast Asian Peninsula Games, have been running since 1959, when the region was still emerging from its long era of colonialism.
Malaysia, who have given the 29th edition the tagline “Rising Together”, are aiming to top the medals table for only the second time by matching the 111 golds they won on home soil in 2001. Ahead of the opening ceremony, they have already made a strong start with seven golds to lead the table ahead of Singapore and Thailand, who both have three.
The Games retain a distinctly regional flavour, with Olympic sports like swimming and athletics contested alongside Asian favourites such as pencak silat, sepak takraw and wushu.
They are a big source of national pride in the fast-growing region of about 650 million people, which all too often finds itself outclassed on the world sporting stage.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Olympic swimming champion Joseph Schooling has apologised to Malaysians after he raised hackles by promising to “teach them a thing or two” at the Southeast Asian Games.
The 22-year-old said he was “really sorry” for his unguarded comments, which made him a target for Malaysian fans. He had earlier insisted the remarks were taken out of context.
“If I offended anyone, I do apologise… that wasn’t my intention,” the 100m butterfly Olympic gold-medallist told reporters, after arriving for the regional Games in Kuala Lumpur.
“I’m really sorry for my comments and I definitely didn’t mean it that way.”
Schooling won Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold medal in 2016 in Rio, while neighbouring Malaysia is yet to produce an Olympic champion.
The Texas-based swimmer won nine gold medals at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore, but he said he will contest a smaller programme of six events in Kuala Lumpur, including relays.
“I’ll do my best in all of them. I’m just going to do my best and let the outcome speak for itself. We have two days to prepare so hopefully we’ll put on a good performance in the Games,” he said.
“It’s definitely not like training for me. Every race my dad likes to say race fast and that actually holds a lot of ground. There are a lot of great swimmers in the Southeast Asian region so I gotta be the best as I can to make my country proud.”