Hanoi SEA Games(L-R) : Panipak Wongpattanakit (Thailand), Ernest John Obiena (Philippines), Hidilyn Diaz (Philippines), Joseph Schooling (Singapore), and Ernest John Obiena (Philippines). FILE PHOTOS

Top 5 to watch in the Hanoi SEA Games(L-R) : Panipak Wongpattanakit (Thailand), Ernest John Obiena (Philippines), Hidilyn Diaz (Philippines), Joseph Schooling (Singapore), and Nur Dhabitah Sabri (Malaysia). FILE PHOTOS

Thousands of competitors are gathering in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi for the 31st SEA Games after Covid-19 postponed the event for six months.

AFP Sport looks at five athletes who could steal the show when the Games begin on Thursday.

Panipak Wongpattanakit (Thailand)

The world number one in women’s taekwondo in the 49kg category, Panipak was Thailand’s only gold medalist at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics and is also a two-time world champion.

Called “Tennis” by her parents, who gave their children nicknames to kindle an interest in sport, she instead excelled at the Korean martial art.

A favorite among Thai sports fans, the 24-year-old was hospitalized for COVID-19 in early April but is still expected to lead the way for her country in Hanoi.

Hidilyn Diaz (Philippines)

Weightlifter Diaz made history by winning the women’s 55kg class in Tokyo, a first Games gold for the Philippines in the country’s nearly 100 years of Olympic competition.

Stranded for nearly 18 months in Malaysia during the pandemic, the 31-year-old had to train in a makeshift rural village gym before setting the Tokyo Games alight.

A staff sergeant in the Philippine Air Force, she became an instant national hero.

Known to celebrate by tucking into cheesecake and bubble tea.

Joseph Schooling (Singapore)

Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling became a household name after winning the 100m butterfly at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Still Singapore’s only gold in its Games history.

The 26-year-old has claimed over two dozen golds at the SEA Games, along with three Asian Games golds.

A bumpy 2021 saw him fail to defend his title in Tokyo and did not even make it out of the heats.

That and mandatory national conscription has left a question mark over where his career is headed.

Ernest John Obiena (Philippines)

Pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena is one of the region’s top stars in athletics.

The 26-year-old set an Asian record when he cleared 5.93 meters at a contest last year.

He is also the SEA Games defending champion and will be the Philippines’ flag-bearer in the Vietnamese capital.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he took up the sport at the age of eight. Ranked the seventh best men’s pole vaulter in the world.

Nur Dhabitah Sabri (Malaysia)

Diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri is one of Malaysia’s top hopes for glory in Hanoi and has already won one gold at these SEA Games when she triumphed in the one-meter springboard on Sunday.

The 22-year-old has taken home a gold medal at every SEA Games since the 2013 Naypyidaw contest.

Standing a mere 1.53m (five feet), she made her Olympics debut in 2016 and finished fifth in the synchronized 3m springboard alongside Cheong Jun Hoong.

In Tokyo Sabri narrowly missed the bronze in the individual 3m springboard and instead had to settle for an agonizing fourth place.

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