Cambodian Games done, Thais beckon


BOU SAMNANG’S determined but distant finish in driving rain and a wild ending to the football final were two of the defining images of Cambodia’s first staging of the Southeast Asian Games.

Despite the host nation’s desire for golds going into the 32nd SEA Games, a mini-Olympic style event for the region of 650 million people, it was 5,000-meter runner Bou Samnang’s finish, in last pace and in tears, on May 8 that captured hearts and earned praise from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Thailand Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, center left, receives the Southeast Asia Game Federal Flag from Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh during the closing ceremony of the 32nd Southeast Asian Games in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Thailand will host the next SEA Games on 2025. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

“What really held my attention was the way she kept running, despite the heavy rain, and despite being in last place,” he said. “To reward her determination, my wife and I will honor her with $10,000.”

With Cambodia experiencing unprecedented success at the event, it could afford to celebrate glorious failure.

In 21 previous appearances at the SEA Games, the country had won 78 gold medals, yet on home soil it took center spot on the podium 81 times and placed fourth out of eleven countries in the standings behind Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

“The number of medals we have earned is one thing, but I am more proud of the fact that our thousands of guests have enjoyed their time here and that the Cambodian people have been inspired to watch—and participate—in sporting events,” Hun Sen said this week.

The SEA Games opened on May 5 with fireworks and celebrations and closed Wednesday.

One reason for the gold rush was Cambodia taking advantage of rules that allow the host nation to include three sports of their own on the program.

That led to one of the controversies. Cambodia’s decision to include Kun Khmer on the program, the local variant of Muay Thai, as the kickboxing event is more widely known, led to Thailand’s fighters boycotting the event. In their absence, Cambodia’s men won 14 gold medals.

Then there was a flag flap, when organizers had to apologize to Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam after their flags were displayed upside down at the opening ceremony.

And, on the penultimate night of the games, the gold medal match in men’s soccer made global headlines as the referee handed out multiple red cards following a mass brawl involving players and staff from both Indonesian and Thailand teams. Indonesia ended up winning 5-2 in extra time for its first SEA Games soccer title since 1991.

Indonesia national team manager Kombes Sumardji sustained a cut lip in the melee.

“Actually I was going to hold back but instead I was the one who was hit,” he said. “I don’t have a problem, this is part of the struggle.”

The Football Association of Thailand issued a statement Wednesday to apologize for the “off-field chaos that occurred during the match” and which “has caused great damage to the Thai national football team.”

Thai soccer officials planned to establish a committee to investigate once the team flies home and said there could be “severe punishment” for players or staff involved.

The incident isn’t likely to tarnish the memories for Cambodians who flocked to events at the newly developed sport complex on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. Its centerpiece is the Chinese-built Morodok Techo National Stadium, with a capacity of 60,000.

The government spent a reported $118 million on hosting the games, which included free tickets for spectators and free accommodation and food for 11,000 athletes and officials. It didn’t go unnoticed by hosts or visitors.

“The ‘Free Games’ is a new concept in our history and has great significance for every participant,” Vietnam Olympic Committee Secretary General Tran Van Manh said. “Lots of people have come and lots of people are supporting the games, and there are also many sponsors. After the games there will be a lot of investment and tourism.” AP

Image credits: AP

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