Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium attempted to live up to its name on Friday night as pyrotechnics, martial arts shows and sets from the country’s biggest pop stars entertained an estimated 60,000 people during the opening ceremony of the first-ever National Games.
Concerns over paratroopers dropping from a helicopter after an unfortunate rehearsal on Wednesday—in which six of eight completely missed the stadium—were allayed as most hit their mark, though one ended up landing among the spectators in the stands.
Emerging around 5 p.m. to a dramatic synth soundtrack, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany watched over the show, which began with songs from pop stars Preap Sovath and Laura Mam as spectators trickled into the stadium.
The crowd waited eagerly as a helicopter circled above the stadium with eight flag-carrying paratroopers expected to drop onto the stadium’s turf. Anticipation was heightened after the Wednesday practice mishap, in which one paratrooper was left hanging from a lamppost on a nearby street.
One of the group veered off course behind the main stands, but managed to get back above the stadium in time for landing. Seven landed on the turf, but one sailed into a packed stand for an embarrassing albeit safe landing.
Following dance routines and martial arts re-enactments to a backdrop of an idyllic sunset over the stadium, the more than 2,000 athletes taking part in the games strode into the stadium carrying flags representing the country’s 25 provinces.
Thong Khon, the minister of tourism, and Hang Chuon Naron, the minister of education, youth and sports, each took turns delivering speeches to the crowd before ceding the stage to Mr. Hun Sen.
The premier explained how the event was created with a view to the 2023 SEA Games, which Cambodia will host for the first time in a massive sports complex being built in the capital’s Chroy Changva district. He described the National Games as a “historic event” in the development of the country’s sports.
“Today is another historic event in reforming our sports and it is the start of a historic chapter that we created together in order to improve our sports fields,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“This is also a political message to clarify and show the peace and stability of our nation. There is no individual or group that can capture Cambodia as a hostage,” the premier said, without elaborating.
The ceremony’s finale came with a large display of fireworks and taekwondo champ Sorn Seavmey, the country’s biggest sports star, lighting the Olympic-like cauldron with a torch.
The games is the biggest sporting event to be held on Cambodian soil since the 1960s, when then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk hosted the 1966 Games of the New Emerging Forces, which gathered some of the world’s “non-aligned” nations during the Cold War.