The Olympic Rings are depicted on the top of a concrete column at Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium (L). Cambodia’s Hem Bunting competed in the men’s marathon at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he placed 73rd (R). Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun
In the 56 years of its Olympic history, Cambodia has taken part in seven Summer Games leading to London 2012. However, the Kingdom has yet to win a medal of any shine.
London marks a slight departure from the past four Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996 in terms of competing disciplines. For the first time, Cambodia will have medal interests in taekwondo and judo.
The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia came into existence in 1983, but it was 11 years later that the nation’s prime sports body was recognised by the International Olympic Committee as a fully fledged member.
It was in 1956 that Cambodia first came into the Olympic fold. But the two Cambodian equestrian competitors had to go through a unique experience of being part of the Melbourne Summer Olympics yet competing thousands of miles away and two months before the official opening ceremony.
The organisers of the Games had to move the Equestrian events to Stockholm because of quarantine regulations prevailing at the time in Australia. That is how Isoup Ghanty and his companion Pen Saing, Cambodia’s first Olympians,? landed in the Swedish capital for their Grand Prix Jumping events.
Isoup Ghanty astride Faltteur II and Saing Pen on board Pompov were early eliminations, but their names will go down in the annals of Cambodian sporting history.
Four boxers, six cyclists and three sailors made the trip to Japan. Though none of them could gate crash the early rounds, Cambodia took comfort in the fact that the country’s Olympic involvement was gradually getting bigger.
The late-’60s saw a political and economic crisis grip the Kingdom, forcing sporting action of any kind completely to the background. It wasn’t until the Munich Games in 1972 that Cambodia could make a recovery of sorts.
A nine-member team of four swimmers, four athletes and a boxer represented? Cambodia in Germany. The competitors found themselves completely out of their depth, unable as they were to make any headway from the initial? rounds.
Tragically, Munich was to be the last of Cambodia’s Olympic excursions for 24 years, the country devastated by death and destruction reeled under a brutal Khmer Rouge regime that completely suppressed sporting activities.
But the recognition by the IOC in 1993 brought in its wake several notable changes in Cambodia’s sports administration.
The 1996 Atlanta Games signalled a new phase of Olympics participation for a Cambodia that was just beginning to reinvent itself.
Rithya To held the distinction of being the first Cambodian athlete to compete in the men’s marathon. His time of 2 hours and 47 minutes was only good enough to be ranked 105th.
Meanwhile, a young and highly talented Vath Chamroeun, who is now the secretary-general of the NOCC, made his Olympic debut as a wrestler, the only one so far to represent Cambodia in this discipline.
To Rithya again ran the marathon in Sydney in 2000, his time of three hours 3 minutes and 56 seconds netting him 80th place. To Rithya’s record, however, of running back-to-back Olympic marathons has so far gone unmatched by a compatriot.
Since 2000, Cambodia has stuck to its quota of four competitors under the IOC’s Universality placements.
Pouk Sopheak and Sou Titlinda ran the men’s and women’s 100m sprints respectively in Athens in 2004 while Hem Kiry and Ket Sivan swam in the 50m freestyle. None of them could get past the preliminary heats.
In Beijing in 2008, Sou Titlinda managed to improve on her Athens performance but her 12.98 seconds was still way off the mark. The Kingdom lauded the efforts of Hem Bunting, however, who completed the men’s marathon in 2 hours 33 minutes and 32 seconds for an overall ranking of 73rd.
Cambodia’s chain of Olympic participation has not been broken since 1996 and London 2012 could well give Cambodian sports a new direction.
To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at [email protected]