|Malaysia celebrate beating Vietnam in the men’s football final [EPA]|
Regional powerhouse Thailand won the gold medals race at the 25th Southeast Asian Games by just three medals against a greatly improved team from Vietnam that it battled to the last moments of the last day.
The Thais finished with 86 gold and a total metal count of 266 at the 11-nation event in Laos, with Vietnam taking 83 and 215 medals overall.
Indonesia were third with 43 gold and 170 medals. Seventy games records were set during the 12 days of competition.
On the final day in Vientiane, the Thais and Vietnamese took two gold apiece.
Vietnam won two in shooting while Thailand captured mixed doubles tennis and women’s team petanque – also known as boules and a hark back to French Indochina colonialism.
Myanmar picked up two in sepaktakraw, the Philippines won the men’s tennis singles and Laos the men’s team petanque.
The Games unveiled a Vietnamese team that had shown remarkable improvement since the 2007 edition at which host Thailand amassed 182 gold and a total of 406 medals against Vietnam’s 64 gold and 204 overall.
The Thais were expected to capture more than 100 gold medals in Vientiane, but Vietnam had demonstrated at these games the benefit of large amounts of government funding for sports and improved coaching.
“They’re very committed and they have taken the Southeast Asian Games seriously. I am impressed,” said Malaysia’s Minister of Youth and Sports Ahmad Shabery Cheek.
In the most popular event of the Games, favored Vietnam suffered an unlikely 1-0 defeat in the football final after an 84th minute own goal by Mai Xuan Hop handed victory to Malaysia.
Hop sank to the ground and wept.
Thousands of Vietnamese fans packed the 20,000-seat stadium on Thursday, having poured into the Lao capital aboard planes, buses, cars and jammed into the back of open-air trucks, waving Vietnam’s yellow star flag and carrying portraits of revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh.
The hosts received high marks from athletes, coaches and officials for running the games with surprising efficiency mixed with traditional Lao hospitality and a laidback style.
The sporting event, staged in one of the world’s poorest nations, was the biggest in the country’s history and probably the largest national event since celebrations of independence from France in 1947.
Vientiane’s schools were closed, weddings and other large gatherings banned and the capital underwent major infrastructure clean-ups and repairs.
Hundreds of high school and college student volunteers, the women dressed in sarongs, helped out at the sports venues.
Largely dependent on foreign aid, Laos received assistance from China, which built the main stadium complex, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Brunei and neighbouring Thailand, which provided technical assistance and personnel to help run events and train future local sports officials.
The Lao teams, cheered on by avid fans, exceeded their official gold target of 25, winning 33.
The 2011 games will be hosted by four cities in Indonesia – Semarang, Bandung, Jakarta and Palembang – and will feature competition in 38 sports including non-Olympic ones like wall climbing, roller skating, chess and the martial art of kenpo.
Host nations can introduce some sports of their own choosing, and are normally ones in which they excel.