Will an ASEAN nation ever host the Olympics?

Perhaps if Thailand made the bold bid for Bangkok Olympics 2040, our national pride, and standards required to host such an event, could be the juice we need to propel change…

By | Fri 13 Aug 2021

With the end of this year’s delayed Tokyo Olympics 2020, nations small and large have been celebrating their teams’ efforts and achievements. I applaud Japan for hosting the event successfully amidst a global pandemic, knowing and mitigating the risks and with an initial budget of $7.5 billion which ballooned to $15 billion. Without the backing of Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo Olympics would have been cancelled or delayed further.

Looking at the medal counts this year, I’m not surprised by the results. Brushing aside the US-China rivalry, the top 10 nations are in effect almost the same as the Rio Olympics 2016 and London Olympics 2012. If you notice, the top 10 winners are almost always rich countries with liberal democracy. (There are exceptions, of course.) Why isn’t Thailand or Indonesia in the top 20?

Broadly speaking, several factors determine winning medals. A country’s wealth plays a huge role. When your country’s citizens are starving and ridden with crimes, little money is left to spend on national sport. With a developed industrialised country, however, you can afford to invest in national sport, with proper academy, training, and financial incentives for athletes and coaches, as well as equipment. The second factor is population size. With a large population, you have a greater pool of talent available to draw from. And finally is what I call the “sporting culture”. Even if a country is rich and populous, if it doesn’t put effort in and celebrate athleticism and national sports (such as rugby, soccer, baseball), then it won’t produce many Olympians. Australia is a prime example of an outdoor country where rugby, cricket, and Aussie football are a national religion. Where footie players are respected and well paid on par with local celebrities.

These top 10 countries, if you notice, not only produce the best athletes, they also host the best Olympics. What I am getting at is that rich countries with strong rule-of-law, with democracy, have the soft and hard infrastructures to accomplish long-term goals such as producing world-class sports players and hosting the game – or indeed to wage war or tackle climate change. To be an Olympics host requires a huge budget in the billions of dollars, long-term planning, and effective government. Political stability of the host’s country is crucial, not to mention the security of all Olympians as well as foreign dignitaries and the audience. If your team’s sprinter fears returning home for her safety, as is the case of a Belarusian runner, there is little chance of that country hosting the next game. For if the Belarusian government is threatening their Olympians, they are capable of much more menacing behaviours.

Thus, in one important sense, being a host of the Olympics requires you to get your “house in order”. A divided house, ridden with corruption and internal conflicts, won’t have economic and political muscle to bid for the spot to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And let’s face it, as much as we think the IOC is a neutral organisation dedicated to the promotion of peace through sports, it is a political beast, with varying interests from different nations. Listed as an honour member is Henry Kissinger.

There are 10 Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) comprising Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam. To this list, I will remove Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, where dictators and poverty reign. Brunei and Singapore are too small to host the global game. Vietnam and Malaysia aren’t big on sports, and haven’t received a medal for a while. This leaves us with the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. Incidentally, these three countries are ranked closely in the Tokyo Olympics: the Philippines 4 medals; Indonesia 5 medals; Thailand 2 medals. All in the 50th rankings.

Of the three, Thailand has a lot of potential. Our taekwondo and badminton categories are performing well. While soccer is the most popular sport here, Thais spend more time betting on, than playing football! Millions of fans here watch Manchester United and Liverpool as opposed to local Thai sports teams, which results in dollars going abroad rather than being invested at home. (My general rule: Wherever the attention goes is where the money will flow.) I believe if Thais spend less time on soap operas and more on vouching for local sports – volleyball, table tennis, local soccer etc., it’ll be a game changer, with more advertising dollars going here. Moreover, were Muay Thai to become an Olympics sport, we would gain a competitive edge.

Of these three countries, Thailand has the highest GDP per capita, which increases its odds of hosting.

Paris will host the next (summer) Olympics 2024, followed by LA 2028, then Brisbane 2032. (Summer Olympics has more sports and commands a larger global audience than winter Olympics.) Will Bangkok be able to host the 2040 Olympics? Manila in 2044? As hard as that goal is, it’s not impossible. South Korea got their act together in the 1980s, with a solid economic performance, enabling it to host the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and becoming an Asian tiger. For Thailand, it’ll require a substantive “political re-organisation” of a magnitude never seen before, with long-term view, delayed gratification, and proper investments in Thai citizens. The best assets a country has are its people. Not other nations’ soccer teams. Whether Manchester United wins the English Premier doesn’t enhance Thailand’s prestige.

Whether Thais become criminals, chefs or Olympics medalists will depend on the direction the country has set its course.

Indeed, it was the former Japan’s defense minister and the current Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike who wrote that it is in the West’s interest for a stable Thailand, given its geostrategic weight and its dynamism in South East Asia.