Cambodia has successfully concluded its duties for the 32nd SEA Games, after a 64-year-wait to host the regional biennial multi-sports extravaganza. The games were staged at a dozen Phnom Penh venues, as well as in Preah Sihanouk, Kampot, Kep and Siem Reap provinces.

The magnificent closing ceremony took place on the evening of May 17 at the purpose-built $150 million Morodok Techo National Stadium in the capital.

The final events of the 36 sports that were on offer at the games took place on May 16, with the last being the men’s under-22 football final. The match, held at the Olympic Stadium in the capital, went to Indonesia, the winners of a thrilling 5-2 victory in extra time over rivals Thailand.

A total of 2,037 medals – 584 gold, 576 silver and 877 bronze – were on offer to the athletes of the 11 Southeast Asian nations that took part.

Vietnam topped the table with 355 medals: 136 gold, 105 silver and 114 bronze. Their tally edged Thailand into second place, with 108 gold, 96 silver and 108 bronze.

Indonesia placed third, with a total of 276 medals: 87 gold, 80 silver and 109 bronze, narrowly beating hosts Cambodia who celebrated a historic medal haul of 282 medals on their home soil.

Team Cambodia secured 81 gold medals, 74 silver, and 127 bronze, easily besting its previous best result of eighth on the medal table.

Brunei and Timor-Leste found themselves bottom of the table, with just nine and eight medals respectively. Brunei took home two gold, one silver and six bronze, while Timor-Lest returned with eight bronze.

Prime Minister Hun Sen took to social media to laud the historic result, ahead of the May 17 closing ceremony.

“At the 20th SEA Games in 1999, Cambodia ranked 10th on the table, with zero medals. Just 24 years later, the Kingdom bagged 282 medals, placing them fourth, and third in terms of gold medals,” he said.

“This achievement belongs to the entire nation. We stood together to build up the Kingdom as a whole and sports in particular.

“I offer my warmest congratulations to all of the members of Team Cambodia for their efforts to win medals for the nation,” he added.

The Kingdom’s fame and reputation on the international stage was further enhanced when it was announced that the decision had been made to make these the first “free” SEA Games, with no fees charged for admission to all events, and free food and accommodation for the visiting athletes and their teams. As a final friendly gesture, Hun Sen announced that all of the visiting athletes – and their coaches and support teams – would receive free admission to the Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the greatest cultural treasures on Earth.

Traditional games such as Kun Khmer, Kun L’bokator and Ouk Chaktrang (Khmer chess), were also included in the games, for the first historic time.

Cambodian Kun Khmer fighters were able to collect 14 gold medals, the highest tally of any sport. They were followed by the Vovinam team’s 10, and the eight claimed by the Kun L’bokator exponents.

Cambodian kickboxers claimed six golds, wrestlers five, Sepaktrakraw four, while cricket, ju-jitu and E-sports each claimed three gold.

The games saw the return of some of the Kingdom’s sporting superstars, including ju-jitsu sensation Jessa Khan – who bagged a silver and a gold on the mats – and taekwondo legend Sorn Seavmey, who claimed her fourth consecutive gold, with a sensational return to the ring, before announcing her retirement.

Bou Samnang captured the hearts of millions with her gutsy determination to finish in the 5,000m event. SPM

The public also discovered some new sporting heroes, like carom billiards champion Sruong Pheavy, who earned the Kingdom one gold in her signature three-cushion event.

But it wasn’t just the winners that drew the admiration of the people of Cambodia, and the world. Cambodian runner Bou Samnang captured the hearts of millions with her gutsy determination to finish in the 5,000m event.

She earned praise from the public, and the attention of the local and international press, when images of her tear-and-rain streaked face were published. Coming in last place, Samnang’s determination to finish despite a torrential downpour drew plaudits from many observers, including representatives of the International Olympic Committee.

“The number of medals that Cambodia claimed at the games is a fantastic achievement for us. Hosting the games, let alone standing fourth on the medal table, is unprecedented, are we are incredibly proud of this historic achievement,” said Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the Cambodia SEA Games Organising Committee (CAMSOC).

Kin Phea, director of the International Relation Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said he was ineffably proud to see that Cambodians “have made it”, describing the success of the team – and the games themselves – as a rich source of national pride.

He believed that after overcoming significant challenges, Cambodia was able to deliver an unforgettable event and establish itself as a significant actor in the region.

“As a result of our success, we now have big plans for the future and ambitions that will enable us to change the pessimistic perceptions of many foreign countries. I expect that we will be in contention to host many more sporting events, for decades to come,” he said.

He described one of the most significant legacies of the 32nd SEA Games as the extensive infrastructure development that the kingdom underwent in preparation for the tournament. As part of this project, new stadiums were built and older ones were modernised.

He said the venues that were designed to host games matches and events will serve as sports and entertainment centres for the local community long after the tournament.

“Sports have the power to bring people together, regardless of their age, race, gender, culture or nationality, and that is never truer than at the SEA Games. The games will help many communities to come together, as they have provided quality spaces that will allow people to gather and socialise,” he added.

He also noted that the event had helped to promote Cambodia as a tourist destination.

On the political front, he explained that the successful regional event was a testament to the Kingdom’s political stability, and an optimistic sign for the coming July general election.

“The international perception of Cambodia’s is gradually changing, based on how we respond to challenges,” he said.

“The 2023 SEA Games enabled the Kingdom to differentiate itself from stereotypical notions of an underdeveloped and war-torn state, by projecting the image of Cambodia as one of the most peaceful, sports-loving states in the region,” he said.