As the sports fraternity comes to grips with the tragic death of basketballer Phal Sorphors in a traffic accident last week, Cambodia’s biggest ever troupe for a multi-discipline event will descend on the Indonesian capital Jakarta for the 26th SEA Games. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono officially unveils the mega event involving 6,000 athletes and 545 gold medals at the Gelora Sriwijaya stadium tomorrow.
“The best way to honour the memory of Cambodia’s 19-year-old fallen star [Phal Sorphors] is for the country to do well in the Games, especially basketball he would have been part of,” said Cambodia’s Chef de Mission Vath Chamroeun, echoing the sentiments of a legion of mourners bidding farewell to one of country’s fast emerging talents.
Cambodian medal interests are spread over 20 disciplines and the Kingdom is excitingly seeking a double down on the three gold medals that the 2009 SEA Games in Laos provided. There is also heightened expectation that Cambodia would reap a richer harvest of silver and bronze medals, given the country’s better preparations this time and marked improvement over the last two years in many of the events, notably taekwondo, wrestling, boxing, judo, vovinam and petanque.
Cambodia scooped four gold medals from the 2011 ASEAN Taekwondo Championships which Phnom Penh hosted in April of this year, giving room for optimism that the national team can pull off some top notch performances in Indonesia where the discipline offers 21 golds in total.
Cambodia’s longest serving foreign coach, South Korean Choi Yong Sok, who has been in charge of the team since 1994, is picking Sorn Davin and Chhoeung Putharim as bright medal prospects in the women’s section. Puth Buntheon’s Kyorugi gold and Chhoy Bounthom’s silver at the ASEAN meet make them men’s medal hopefuls.
“I expect good performances from every member of my team. They have been training hard. They have been showing remarkable improvement in fitness and techniques and we are approaching this SEA Games with greater confidence of a good showing than any previous ones,” added the coach.
Equally emphatic about his team’s chances of causing a ripple or two is judo coach Lach Vuthy. An inspiring bronze-medeal winning performance at the First Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last year by Sam Sothea has charted a new course for the Kingdom’s judokas.
“Self belief in the team had never been so high. No doubt competition in Indonesia will be very tough but our spirits are high and so are our hopes,” said the coach.
Wrestling traditions in Cambodia go as far back as the first Khmer civilization, though in competitive terms the nation is yet to strike rich on the mat when it comes to these regional rivalries. In 2009, wrestling added one gold to petanque’s two as the only glittering moments for Cambodia, but this time around the grapplers could well supply at least one more to the tally from the 17 golds they are vying for.
“We have some talented wrestlers both in the men’s and women’s categories. There were some close calls in the past and I hope things turn out better for us in Indonesia,” said wrestling coach Paek Su Nam.
The Kingdom’s boxers are looking for a swing in fortune too. For a country which takes pride in its kickboxing culture, the ring has not exactly been kind to the Kingdom’s pugilists when it comes to gold standards.
This scenario is set to change in Indonesia if coach Chhoung Yav Yan is to be believed. Though Cambodian boxers will be up against some of the toughest in the business, their sheer grit and pluck could bring them a few accolades.
The country’s athletics scene has been somewhat rocky with the sacking from the national team of best known long distance runner Hem Bunting, who was considered a strong medal prospect having won a silver and two bronzes at past SEA Games. The Khmer Amateur Athletics Federation contends that Bunting has been kept out of the squad due to “discipline issues” but the twice winner of Angkor Wat International Half marathon and Phnom Penh Half Marathon blames it on “prejudice.”
In the midst of this unsavoury controversy comes the inclusion in the delegation of Japanese runner Takizaki Kyniaki, better known as Neko Hiroshi.
Takizaki, who is a popular stand up comedian in Japan, has been a long-time resident of Phnom Penh. He trotted in second a full five minutes behind Hem Bunting in the Phnom Penh Half marathon in June this year, a confirmation that he may not be in the same league as the Cambodian runner.
Obviously, his inclusion has raised many eyebrows and the reactions in athletics circles range from surprise to shock and anything in between. However, the Federation has immense faith in Takizaki’s ability to deliver the much needed medal boost in athletics and the controversial element of his selection has been swept under the carpet.
There may not be much cheer for Cambodia’s swimmers in the pool. Though some of the national team members have been steadily improving on their personal bests, they are still well off the medal marks.
“We are counting on some surprises though it is quite a huge ask,” said former swimming champion Hem Thon. “For many, it will be useful experience for the future.”
Jakarta plays host to the SEA Games for the fourth time after the events in 1979, 1987 and 1997. Co-host city of Palembang is only the third non-capital to stage part of the Games following in the footsteps of Thailand’s Chiang Mai and Nakhon Ratchasima.
The 6th ASEAN ParaGames in the central Java island city of Surakarta opens two weeks after the end of the SEA Games.