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Southeast Asian Games woes spoil Duterte's coming-out party

Manila eyes probe over issues surrounding the event

MANILA -- The 2019 Southeast Asian Games, which the Philippines is hosting, were touted as a showcase for President Rodrigo Duterte's "golden age of infrastructure."

Instead, this mini version of the Olympics is creating as much drama for logistical snags and complaints over its cost as for the competition itself, putting Duterte on the defensive and leaving organizers red-faced.

A string of problems, from athletes running short of food options and getting stuck at the airport, to accusations over lavish spending on facilities, is overshadowing the games and thwarting Duterte's effort to show off the country's improvements.

The competition features 56 sports. It is being held in three main locations and more than 60 venues. Over 10,000 athletes, coaches and officials are expected to take part in the games, which open Saturday and will close on Dec. 11.

"The president is not pleased with what he's been hearing about certain snafus. There were allegations of fraud coming out in newspapers. He doesn't like that," presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters on Tuesday in Busan, South Korea, where Duterte is attending a summit between Southeast Asian leaders and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Panelo on Thursday said Duterte's office welcomes congressional inquiries over Manila's hosting of the games. "The Office of the President will also be conducting a separate probe," he said.

The controversy began last week, when opposition Sen. Franklin Drilon objected to the $1 million price tag for 50 meter-high cauldron built next to the new 20,000-seat athletics stadium. In all, 9.5 billion pesos ($187 million) has been spent on facilities in New Clark City, northwest of Manila. A 2,000-seat aquatics center and athletes village were also built.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has complained about reports of corruption associated with the building of facilities for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.   © Reuters

The 9,500-hectare New Clark City site is meant to become a new metropolis and is a key project in Duterte's "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure program.

Duterte defended the cost of the cauldron, which was designed by the late Philippine artist Francisco Manosa. "You know, there can never be corruption in that situation because you commissioned a national artist," Duterte said at a news conference last week. "It is a product of the mind. You cannot estimate how much loss you incurred because it is the rendition of the mind of the creator."

Drilon also questioned whether the stadium will be useful once the games are over. "I have seen a few sites of athletic meets and events all over the world," Drilon said. "I have seen the Olympic stadiums in a number of countries, which today are just monuments of nonuse."

Duterte ally Alan Cayetano, speaker of the house and chairman of the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee, said the facilities "will not become a white elephant."

"In fact, the [Bases Conversion and Development Authority] has been getting inquiries from, I think, American or European teams if they can train there for the [Tokyo] Olympics," Cayetano said.

The BCDA, the government agency in charge of developing New Clark City, also defended its dealings with MTD Capital, the Malaysian company that built the facilities. Rappler, a news site, reported that the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel initially found the deal questionable and said it should have gone through public bidding.

The BCDA disagreed, saying in a statement, "The provisions in the construction of the sports facilities are very advantageous to the government because, under the terms, BCDA will not pay a single centavo until the facilities are completed and accepted." 

Vietnamese and Cambodian players battle for the ball during a match of the men's soccer event at Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila on Dec 7.   © Reuters

The complaints continued this week as foreign athletes began arriving. Some said they had to wait for hours at the airport before transportation showed up. Others were dissatisfied with the limited halal food choices. Some venues were still under construction early this week.

The problems exasperated Juliana Seow, head of the Singaporean delegation, who wrote a complaint to organizers.

"We had tried our best to be patient and understanding," Seow wrote in a letter quoted by the media. "As much as we had tried to resolve the situations ourselves, as well as with our sports and you, these situations cannot continue any further as our athletes are badly affected and are not able to prepare for the games effectively."

Ramon Suzara, chief operating officer of the organizing committee, said on Wednesday that the issues have been resolved. The committee issued an apology this week.

Suzara acknowledged shortcomings, but argued that delays in passing the national budget this year complicated preparations. "It's very difficult," Suzara told reporters. "Problems can come even during the Olympic Games."

More dignitaries are expected to arrive on Thursday and Friday, Suzara said, who pleaded with the media to tone down its reporting on troubles at the games. "I am appealing to all of you to give a positive a note on what we have done," Suzara said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Ella Hermonio.

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