6 Controversial Moments From The 2023 SEA Games You May Not Have Heard About

From mixed up flags to fistfights, we've got all the juicy details.

Cover image via New Straits Times via Reuters & Berita Harian

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1. Upside down flags during the opening ceremony

During the opening ceremony on 5 May, the Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam country flags were unintentionally held upside down, reported The Star.

A Cambodian broadcasting and media production company, Town Production, said it would take full responsibility for the incident and that it will send an official apology letter to the embassies of the three countries.

Since then, the organisers have issued a public apology to Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar for the mistake.

A similar incident occurred in 2017 when the Indonesian flag was printed upside down in a SEA Games souvenir booklet.

Image via Berita Harian

2. Limitation on the number of events contingents could participate in

Host nation, Cambodia, ruffled some feathers with new rules put in place that included a limit to the number of events countries could participate in.

According to Business World, contingents were allowed to participate in 10 out of the 15 events in the karate category. 

Meanwhile, for esports, the maximum number of events that countries could participate in were seven out of 10.

What turned heads the most was that these rules did not apply to Cambodia, whose contingent was allowed to participate in all events.

3. Nationalised athletes in the Cambodian and Thai contingents

According to The Straits Times, the Cambodian and Thai 3x3 men's basketball team consisted of players from the United States — Dorsey Darrinray, Sayeed Pridgett, and Brandon Peterson played for Cambodia, while Tra Holder, Frederick Lish, and Moses Morgan represented Thailand.

With this lineup, the Cambodian team defeated their Thai opponents in the finals to win a historic first basketball gold for Cambodia.

While some, like Holder for example, do have Southeast Asian lineage (his mother is Thai), others were naturalised specifically for the SEA Games. This led to criticism from many parties.

For example, in a since-deleted Instagram post, Cambodian basketball player Joshua Bo Nuong, who did not make the national team, said, "They resort to this for immediate success but they have to understand the pride in representing the people of Cambodia all around the world. Losing is part of learning to become better. Winning without integrity isn’t winning."

Filipino professional basketball player Jack Animam also chimed in, telling Rappler, "If there’s going to be imports like these, I don’t think the essence of the SEA Games is there."

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via markusspiske/unsplash

4. A fistfight took place after the men's football finals

Things took an unfortunate turn during the men's football finals match between Indonesia and Thailand, after Indonesian player Irfan Jauhari scored the winning goal that brought the score to 3-2.

It was reported that Indonesia coaching staff and team manager Sumardji, was beaten by several Thai coaching staff and players, which left Sumardji bleeding from his nose and mouth.

The Thai football association has since apologised and promised to investigate the brawl between the two sides.

5. The use of the name 'Kun Khmer' over 'Muay Thai'

While Kun Khmer, which originates from Cambodia, and Muay Thai from Thailand are both similar sports likened to kickboxing, the host country's decision to replace the latter with the former in the 2023 SEA Games sparked some controversy. Thailand in particular is unhappy with the change.

As quoted by The Nation Thailand, the Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) general secretary Stephan Fox said, "Kun Khmer is not Muay Thai, like judo is not karate,".

IFMA eventually decided to boycott the Kun Khmer event by not sending any representatives to compete in it.

In response, news portal Nikkei Asia quoted Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the Cambodian Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee, as saying that Cambodia would retaliate by not sending kickboxers to the 2025 Southeast Asian Games, to be held in Thailand.

Cambodian athlete, Phun Piseth, clinched a gold medal in Kun Khmer men's below 48kg event.

Image via Kiripost

6. Malaysia had to share the bronze medal with Vietnam in one of the esports categories

This year marked the first time Malaysia sent a team to compete in the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) female category at the SEA Games.

According to The Star, despite winning their match against Vietnam with a score of 2-0, the Malaysian team ended up having to share the bronze medal with their opponents.

While this decision upset many Malaysian fans, Malaysia’s SEA Games contingent assistant manager Megat Danish Izmeer told IGN Southeast Asia, "But I guess from the organiser’s standpoint, this decision was made with the aim to foster sportsmanship and appreciate both teams within the bronze medal tier. A bit weird, but that was the decision."

Here are the final results of the SEA Games:

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