SINGAPORE – When the national water polo team’s unbroken winning streak at the SEA Games came to a stunning end in 2019, they set their sights firmly on a shot at redemption.

But the 27-time gold medallists have since received another shock – the sport has been dropped from this year’s programme for the first time since its inclusion in 1965.

At a SEA Games Federation meeting in November, it was decided that the Nov 21 to Dec 2 Games in Hanoi would feature 40 sports and 500 events – down from the record 56 sports and 530 events that the Philippines staged two years ago.

The Singapore water polo fraternity is hoping for a late reprieve and has lodged an appeal through the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).

Noting that the sport has been a mainstay of the Games programme for decades, Singapore Swimming Association vice-president (water polo) Dominic Soh told The Straits Times that “we hope that the organisers change their minds and include it in the Games”.

Only athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, football, shooting and table tennis (all since the inception of the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1959) have a longer history of unbroken appearances at the biennial meet.

An SNOC spokesman added: “We have appealed to the SEA Games Federation to consider the inclusion of some sports and events including water polo for the 2021 SEA Games in Vietnam.

“As there is a limit to the number of sports a host country can accommodate, it is inevitable that many sports will be omitted. In the case of water polo, we appealed strongly for its inclusion as it is a compulsory discipline of aquatics and has been featured in all editions of the SEA Games since 1965.”

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The SNOC added that “some sports and events we have appealed for, such as bowling and triathlon, were successfully included in the programme”. E-sports and jiu-jitsu were also reinstated after being axed initially.

There are three categories of SEA Games sports – compulsory sports, Olympic and Asian Games sports, and other sports. Typically, the organising committee of each Games will tweak the programme from the latter two categories, and include a few events the host nation is traditionally stronger in to bump up its medal tally.

Citing issues with the budget, a lack of facilities and athletes to compete this year, Vietnam has dropped more than 15 sports and events. Of these, Singapore won 13 gold, 13 silver and 13 bronze medals in the Philippines two years ago.

This is expected to affect the Republic’s medal haul this year, as reaching the 50-gold mark for a fourth straight Games looks improbable. In 2019, Singapore’s athletes returned with 53 golds, 46 silvers and 68 bronzes to finish sixth among 11 countries.

With Vietnam’s National Sports Administration deputy director Tran Duc Phan saying his country “does not meet the requirements to host sailing competitions”, Singapore will be deprived of another of its strengths, a sport which has reaped 55 golds, 50 silvers and 31 bronzes since it was included in the Games programme in 1989.

Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF) general manager Chung Pei Ming said: “Naturally, we are disappointed to be left out of the SEA Games as it is a very important part of the pathway for our sailors to progress through to the Asian Games and the Olympics.

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“It affects the development pathway for our younger batches, but we will try and make up for it by running our own South-east Asian Sailing Championships at the end of the year, if conditions allow.”

Newer SEA Games sports like floorball (2015 and 2019) and netball (2015-2019) are also set to miss out, but like the SSF, the local national sports associations are aiming for quick bounce back in 2023.

Singapore Floorball Association president Kenneth Ho said: “This could be a blessing in disguise for our national teams as they are involved in several major competitions like the Asian Indoor Martial Art Games, women’s World Championship qualifiers and the World Championships for both teams. Adding the SEA Games may be a little too taxing on them.

“However, one of our association’s objectives is to ensure the sport continues to grow regionally such that it gets featured in every SEA Games regardless who is the host.

“We aim to do that by continuing to work closely with the Asia Oceania Floorball Confederation to introduce the sport to regional countries through coaching seminars and player exchange programmes.”

Netball Singapore executive director Cyrus Medora added: “We are disappointed but the outcome is not unexpected due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since 2013, we have tried to help Vietnam build its netball capabilities, and sent coaches there in recent years, but the virus put a stop to the plans last year.

“Once the dust settles, we will be helping Cambodia to build a netball programme ahead of the 2023 Games which it will host. We can only look forward and remain hopeful netball comes back then.”

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