Cambodia can take heart from numerous performances at the London Games, none least so that of their final Olympian Sorn Davin in the women’s over-67kg taekwondo competition at the ExCel Centre on Saturday.
The lanky 20-year-old from Phnom Penh can return home with her head held high after losing in her opening bout to second seed and reigning Olympic champion Maria del Rosario Espinoza of Mexico by a razor-thin points decision.
The last women’s preliminary round match of Saturday’s morning session saw Davin, clad in chung (blue) colours, pursue a historic victory over her highly rated opponent in hong (red). With the music pumping and about two-thirds of the stands still full, the Cambodian came out looking confident and very nearly registered the shock result she was so desperately looking for.
Just 46 seconds into the first round, 24-year-old Espinoza dropped to the mat apparently injured in her hip by an innocuous looking clash with Davin. A few agonising seconds ticked away, but the Mexican slowly rose to her feet for the fight to continue with no points on the scoreboard.
Referee Renata Crkvenac of Croatia had to goad the martial artists into combat, with both guilty of an overly cautious approach.
It was Davin who drew first blood in the 80th second of the two-minute opening round with a clean kick to the body to score a single point. Almost immediately, however, Espinoza pegged things back level with a defensive punch landed as she was retreating.
The second round then saw the favourite pick up an early Kyong-go (warning penalty) as she looked to gain a foothold in the contest. Davin was having none of it and attempted an audacious kick to the head as her rival fell backwards. “I felt the sole of my foot touch the back of her head,” Davin told the Post after the match.
Her coach Choi Yong-sok also thought he saw contact and appealed for a video referral by review judge Vu Xuan Thanh of Vietnam. With three points up for grabs for a successful head kick, the fighters stood nervously on the mat awaiting a decision. Sadly, the appeal was rejected and the score remained locked at 1-1.
Espinoza, who like Davin was the flag-bearer of her delegation during the Parade of Nations at the Olympics Opening Ceremony on July 27, seized the advantage with another defensive punch to go one point up midway through the round. While the Mexican was vocally more aggressive, Davin was silent but not violent enough to convert her multitude of kicks into points.
The third and final round garnered a rousing response from the crowd, who favoured the champion. Espinoza’s tactic of firing off plenty of punches was not without its risks, and she picked up two quick Kyong-gos to receive a Gam-jeom (deduction penalty), granting Davin a free point and a glimpse of glory.
In the dying moments, however, the Cambodian fell victim to yet another defensive punch from her opponent to see her Olympic dream crudely snatched away.
“Why no points for me?” said Davin as she left the arena, with the announcer hailing her remarkable effort as the underdog.
Coach Choi, meanwhile, was left frustrated and exasperated by the outcome. “I don’t understand,” he said repeatedly after the bout.
“Today, Davin’s condition was good. Her confidence and concentration was very high. I felt this was going to be a lucky day for us.”
The South Korean taekwondo master, who speaks near fluent Cambodian having lived in the Kingdom for the past 16 years, noted that all three of the Mexican’s winning points were won by punches. The automated Protector Scoring System, which was making its debut at an Olympic Games, did not come to their rescue.
“Only the judges can score punches,” added Choi. The three seated officials that took care of the match hailed from Spain, Azerbaijan and Iceland.
Interestingly, just one other women’s match had scored less points in total during the morning session on Saturday, with the majority enjoying significantly larger tallies including an epic 17-16 sudden
death victory by Slovenia’s Nusa Rajher.
Despite his dejection, coach Choi needed to remain upbeat about the chance of making the repechages round later that evening for a shot at the bronze medal. The option required Davin’s vanquisher Espinoza to get all the way through to the final.
“Now we support Mexico,” Choi said with a resigned smile. But it was again not to be their day.
Espinoza was beaten in her very next match, a gripping 6-4 quarterfinal loss to 20-year-old Mandic Milica of Serbia.
Sorn Davin shrieked in disappointment from the stands as she watched the doors of her last chance saloon slam shut. “I’m going home [to the Olympic Village],” she said eventually with a departing bow to her coach.
Choi slumped back in his chair, still visibly bemused by the outcome of their preliminary contest. “The official result was a loss, but for me Davin was the winner,” he said.
Had the Cambodian lost to Milica in the first round, she would have made it safely through to the repechage as the young Serb blitzed all in her path to a claim the gold, beating top seeded French fighter Anne-Caroline Graffe in the final on Saturday night. In a cruel twist of fate, Espinoza bagged a bronze via the repechage along with Russia’s Anastasia Baryshnikova.
Following last night’s Closing Ceremony, Davin and coach Choi will fly back to Phnom Penh with the rest of the delegation after a short stopover in Paris. They will begin making preparations for next year’s SEA Games in Myanmar, where Davin will look to go one better than her silver medal from Indonesia 2011.
She will likely be a strong consideration for the 2016 Rio Games.
To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Riley at email@example.com reporting from London