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After decades on its knees, Cambodian sport is reaching for the sky

Cambodia’s Sorn Seavmey (left) competes against Iran’s Fatemeh Rouhani at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. Seavmey went on to take gold. ​AFP
Cambodia’s Sorn Seavmey (left) competes against Iran’s Fatemeh Rouhani at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. Seavmey went on to take gold. ​AFP

After decades on its knees, Cambodian sport is reaching for the sky

Twelve kilometres across Phnom Penh’s Japanese Bridge, two large columns tower over the fencing of a 94-hectare site. Atop each column, stylised flames leap from a cauldron. The Olympic rings decorate the gates to the site. A 75,000-capacity stadium is due to complete the Morodok Techo National Sports Complex, which is slated to cost $150 million and is to be the centrepiece of the 2023 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games when Cambodia hosts the regional sporting extravaganza for the first time.

The ultra-modern, multi-purpose Olympic-standard main stadium will house a football pitch, running track and four eight-storey athletes’ quarters including 400 rooms and two huge dining halls.

Cambodian sport is focused on assembling a team of athletes to match the ambitious stadium for the Games. Home taekwondo sensation Sorn Seavmey will be 27 and likely at the peak of her prowess when the Games arrive in the Kingdom in six years’ time.

Seavmey’s incredible performance in the South Korean city of Incheon in 2014 bagged Cambodia’s first ever Asian Games gold medal in the 60 years of the Asiad. Two years later, she shattered another glass ceiling by qualifying for the Rio Games in Brazil. After the 1972 Games in Munich, Cambodia did not attend the Olympics until Atlanta in 1996.

The construction of a world-class stadium, Cambodia’s largest sporting infrastructure project since the completion of the Olympic Stadium in 1963, during the nation’s ‘Golden Era’, comes as the Kingdom gears up to host the SEA Games after so many years in the wilderness is all the more remarkable considering just 25 years ago Cambodian sport was on its knees.

At the turn of the millennium, Cambodia was just beginning to turn the page on the dark legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, during which sportspeople were also targeted in the regime’s senseless campaign of mass murder.

Prime Minister Hun Sen inspects the pool at the Morodok Techo National Sports Complex.
Prime Minister Hun Sen inspects the pool at the Morodok Techo National Sports Complex.

History has recorded the gruesome killing of nearly 40 registered tennis players at the time, with only three managing to survive the horror. Hundreds of other sportsmen and women suffered similar fates. Yet the country has shown a staggering resilience to rise from such incomprehensible horror.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a staunch backer of Cambodian sports, spoke for the entire nation when he hailed the courageous gold-winning performance of Seavmey as an inspiration for generations to come and a change of course for the country’s sporting fortunes.

Of the five founding members of the SEA Games, Cambodia is the only country to have missed out on its rotation to host the biennial event in its 58-year history. The Kingdom was awarded the 1963 edition but political turmoil and financial constraints contrived with other factors to abort the hosting of the Games.

The situation was even worse when the offer was repeated in 1966.

But that painful blot has now been removed, and the long wait is nearly over. Cambodia will be hosting the 2023 SEA Games, reviving a dream that was shattered 54 years ago.

The first phase of the Morodok Techo National Sports Complex, which includes a state of-the-art indoor arena and international-standard aquatics facility comprising an Olympic swimming pool, a warm-up pool and a platform diving pool, has already been completed. Work on the second and the third phases are expected to be finished within the next three to four years so that the facility will be ready for use well before the 2023 Games.

Renovation of the Olympic Stadium is also high on the list of priorities. A facility created for the 1963 Games, the iconic stadium designed by Vann Molyvann, is now set to finally fulfil its original purpose after a 60-year wait.

As part of its strategic plan for better medal counts in regional and international events, the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) has doubled its budget over the past five years.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, armed with the oversight authority on anything sport in the country, has been spending up to an estimated $10 million per year, part of which has been set aside to pay nearly 300 national athletes and coaches a monthly average salary of $400.

The NOCC is also looking to football as its prime team sport in its drive for top honours at the 2023 SEA Games. The popularity of the Kingdom’s football scene has exploded over the past two years following the national team’s involvement in the second round of World Cup qualifiers featuring such big-name sides as Japan.

Though Cambodia remains in the shadow of the region’s top teams like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, both the NOCC and the Football Federation of Cambodia are optimistic the national team will soon close the gap.

Of the non-Olympic disciplines, petanque – French bowls – has given Cambodia a wealth of great results on the international stage, including a clutch of gold medals at the SEA Games as the country prepares to host the 2019 World Championships.

With Ouk Sreymom striking it rich as the world champion this year in Belgium, she joined a former two-time winner, the legendary Ke Leng, and men’s champion last year Mean Sok Chan in elevating the country’s status in the sport.

Going into Tokyo in four years’ time, Cambodia will still be among the 71 countries seeking an Olympic medal of any colour. Small nations Kosovo and Fiji won their first medals in Rio last year. Whether or not Cambodia can join them on the podium at Tokyo 2020, one thing is certain: like the columns outside the $150 million stadium taking shape on the outskirts of the capital, the future of Cambodian sport is, unlike 25 years ago, finally reaching for the sky.


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