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Delayed Southeast Asian Games begin in Vietnam's capital

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Dancers perform during the opening ceremony of the 31st Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, Vietnam Sunday, May 12, 2022. The SEA Games 31 takes place from May 12 to May 23 in Hanoi, and 11 nearby provinces. (AP Photo/Minh Hoang)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The Southeast Asian Games officially kicked off Thursday with a mask-optional opening ceremony in Vietnam's capital, the first major gathering in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Despite the difficulties caused by COVID-19, we are here today as a symbol of solidarity of the 11 Southeast Asian nations to overcome all challenges,” Hanoi Mayor Chu Ngoc Anh said in a speech.

Athletes from the 11 nations paraded and about 600 artists performed traditional acts and dances in My Dinh national stadium, which was filled with about 20,000 spectators and officials.

The two-week games have drawn about 5,000 athletes competing in 40 sports, including Olympics standard events as well as traditional games and martial arts popular in the region, such as Vovinam and Muay Thai.

The biennial games were originally scheduled last December but were postponed due to COVID-19.

Vietnam reopened in March, two years after its borders were closed to curb the virus.

At several events that have already begun competition, including soccer and futsal, stands were filled with fans, giving a sense of normalcy.

“I’m very excited about the SEA Games,” said Nguyen Duc Tung, a spectator at the opening ceremony. “It’s been a long time since I've been able to watch and cheer at such a big sporting event.”

Hau Dinh, The Associated Press