Gymnastics first made its debut in Cambodia in 1968, rapidly growing in popularity before, as with sport and all cultural prursuits, it was banned under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.
Following liberation on January 7, 1979, dedicated individuals within the gymnastics community worked to establish a federation.
Eventually recognised by the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC), the federation received permission from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to resume activities in 1985.
It later gained official recognition from the International Gymnastics Federation in 1994.
Since its inception, the Cambodia Gymnastics Federation has been steered by only two presidents.
Keo Thon, the inaugural president, played a pivotal role in revitalising the sport in close collaboration with former coaches during the 1980s. Later, Thong Khon assumed responsibility and continues in the role to this day.
Coach Pich You, who tirelessly trained numerous athletes, recounts the challenges faced when gymnastics was re-established from scratch.
The sport overcame hurdles to achieve historic milestones, including winning medals at the SEA Games and other international competitions.
This success is attributed to the visionary leadership of senior minister Thong Khon and secretary-general Noy Phana.
A gymnast since 1967, You says she and Tep Kret Sasana became the first coaches when the sport was reintroduced at Old Stadium in 1981.
Training eventually transitioned to the National Olympic Stadium, attracting hundreds of students.
At the time, multiple coaches stepped forward, taking turns to provide much sought after guidance.
“During that time, we extended our efforts to orphanages and schools for training.
“More than 100 students sought training, with coaches and students dedicating their time purely out of passion and volunteerism.
“There was no financial support for their training and coaching efforts, unlike the present day,” she recalls.
Yet, the demanding nature of gymnastics training, coupled with the inherent risk of injuries, posed challenges that resulted in a lack of parental support.
Consequently, the number of students declined sharply from around 120 to 16, with only six remaining when a professional coach from Vietnam arrived in late 1984 to provide specialised training.
‘Passion and perseverance’
You says: “Gymnastics is no walk in the park. It is only for those ready to make sacrifices, driven by passion and unwavering perseverance.
“Noy Phana is my only student who stuck with this journey to the present day. With tremendous effort and unwavering dedication as secretary-general, he has played a crucial role in fostering gymnastics.
“We started from scratch in Cambodia, facing tons of challenges. As a sports mentor, I take great pride in witnessing gymnastics achieve new milestones. I frankly never anticipated the remarkable progress gymnastics has made.”
Having engaged in gymnastics since 1981 and serving as secretary-general of the federation from the first mandate to the present, Phana highlights the demanding nature of gymnastics training.
However, his enduring commitment to the sport emanates from a profound love and passion.
“Our success thus far has been accompanied by considerable challenges, but, as I’ve consistently emphasised, we must transform those difficulties into opportunities.
“Starting from the ground up, we all put in tremendous effort. Notably, in the sixth mandate, we attained the pinnacle of success for our nation,” he shares.
Phana notes that the federation includes eight member clubs, including 7 Makara Sen Chey representing the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of National Defence Club, Sala Bak Touk Club in Phnom Penh.
Kratie’s Sak Kemanh Club and the Kampong Kda, Kampong Tralach Leu, Kien Roka and Pathom Seksa Sala Lek Pram Clubs from Kampong Chhnang complete the member clubs.
Total participation involves around some 200 athletes.
The federation recently concluded its General Assembly, marking the end of the 6th mandate (2019-2023) and setting the direction for the upcoming 7th mandate (2023-2027).
The assembly, held at the NOCC headquarters on November 14, saw Thong Khon re-elected as president.
Sok Hong assumed the role of vice president, Noy Phana as secretary general, Meas Sareth as the deputy secretary general, and Khieu Chenda as treasurer.
Continuing their roles as members are Eam Vangdul, Chum Raty, Pich You and Duong Samai. The federation also welcomed two new members, Srun Sok Oun and Chhay Sopheap, in the latest mandate.
Khon, continuing his presidency, views the sixth mandate as a period of remarkable successes.
Gymnasts achieved numerous milestones, notably securing silver and bronze medals at the SEA Games, and winning gold, silver and bronze medals in international competition.
“As the federation’s president, I’m thrilled because our hardworking technical staff, coaches and athletes have achieved remarkable milestones for the nation, heralding a new era for the federation,” he reflects.
In the sixth mandate, the gymnastics team secured notable successes, clinching a total of three silver medals and one bronze medal at the Korea Open from 2019 to 2023. They made history by winning three silver medals and one bronze medal at the 31st SEA Games 2022 in Vietnam.
During the 32nd SEA Games in 2023, the first time Cambodia hosted the event, the gymnastics team’s medal count decreased, earning one silver and three bronzes.
Nevertheless, the experience gained contributed to the team’s remarkable success at the 8th Aerobic Gymnastics Asian Championships in Mongolia, where they won one gold medal and one bronze medal.
In the 7th Aerobic Gymnastics Asian Championships held in Thailand in 2022, they secured two silver medals and one bronze medal.
Groundwork for gold
“Despite not securing gold at the SEA Games, it’s a source of great pride that we attained silver and bronze medals, achieving something unprecedented.
“This laid the groundwork for our gymnastics team’s success at the Asian Championship in Mongolia, where they clinched the gold medal,” Khon remarks.
Phana underscores that these achievements are the result of the combined efforts of all stakeholders, from the past to the present.
During the sixth mandate, the federation prioritised resources to train technical officials and coaches, transforming them into internationally recognised figures.
These coaches and judges played a pivotal role in guiding athletes to follow a well-designed master plan, leading to the successful attainment of medals at the SEA Games and other events – a departure from past approaches.
“The contrast between the early days of gymnastics and the current state is significant. Before the Pol Pot regime, despite the existence of a federation, we never secured a medal in any international competition.
“However, with the unwavering leadership and dedication of Thong Khon, who has been collaborating with us for nearly 40 years, we have achieved commendable results, enhancing the nation’s honour and prestige on the international stage,” he recalls.
Khon, also the president of the NOCC, urges the newly appointed committee to exert even more effort in setting a new record for hosting the 5th Asian Youth Games in 2029.
“We must establish an academy now and intensify training so technical staff and coaches meet international standards.
“It’s crucial to begin promptly to guarantee success at the Asian Youth Games in 2029, with participation from 45 countries.
“This time, we aim not to miss any gold medals. We must redouble our efforts to ensure victories,” he says.