Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium was abuzz on Wednesday as Cambodia’s sports stars mingled with amateur athletes from across the country, visiting the capital for the nation’s biggest sporting event since the 1960s.
While basketball and table tennis tournaments began on Wednesday, the official opening ceremony of Cambodia’s first “National Games” is on Friday, when 60,000 people are expected to descend on the stadium for an Olympics-style curtain raiser.
On Wednesday afternoon, soldiers practiced martial arts routines on the stadium’s artificial turf while traditional dancers rehearsed in preparation for the show, which will be presided over by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
At about 4 p.m., sporting stars, including taekwondo ace Sorn Seavmey, who became the first Cambodian to win a gold medal at the Asian Games in 2014, and footballer Chan Vathanaka, the top player on the national team, took part in a Buddhist ceremony on the side of the field as fans jostled for selfies.
Earlier in the day, the games— which have borrowed U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan “Stronger Together”—got off to a more low-key start with the basketball and table tennis tournaments getting underway at the stadium compound.
Chea Vathana, 29, who works for a company in Phnom Penh, but has taken the week off to captain Kampot in the basketball competition, rued his team’s heavy 84-34 loss to a taller, stronger Kompong Cham lineup.
“Some live in Kampot, but I work in Phnom Penh, so in the first game we have not cooperated together. So that’s why the result is bad like this, but we hope the result in the next game will be better,” he said.
Despite his frustrations at the result, the captain said he was proud to be taking part in the country’s largest sports competition since Cambodia hosted the 1966 Games of the New Emerging Forces, which gathered some of the world’s “non-aligned” nations during the Cold War.
“This is the biggest event for me. Before, our team joined the regional games, university games, primary school games,” he said. “It’s the first time ever that Cambodians have had a National Games.”
Lois Kim Yuong, 26, discovered his talent for table tennis while playing older friends in Preah Sihanouk province for money and picked up tips from his Chinese idols on YouTube, but lost 3 sets to 1 on Wednesday in a match against Bun Visal from Kampot.
His spirits, however, were not dimmed.
“I feel very excited about this ceremony, especially as I am the one who will carry the Sihanoukville flag for all players from Sihanoukville,” he said. “After this I hope many people will be interested in sport and will prepare for the SEA Games in 2023.”
The SEA Games, which will be the largest sporting event held in Cambodia, was one of the catalysts for launching the National Games, said Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who was inside the stadium on Wednesday.
“The idea is to select the best team for 2023, that’s number one. Number two, we have to…get experience in organizing a major sporting event,” he said.
The minister said he believed promoting national-level sports could also help inspire the next generation of Sorn Seavmeys and Chan Vathanakas, who have become household names with a wide range of sponsorship deals.
“We want to provide an opportunity for students, for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to become stars—to become champions. It’s also an equalizer to include them. Even if they are poor, sports give them hope,” Mr. Chuon Naron said.
“Take Sorn Seavmey: she comes from a poor background, but through sport, after only five years’ training, she becomes a star,” he said, pointing over at the martial artist.
“Now she is more famous than all of us. Even a minister is not famous like her.”
The games continue through November 5. Entry is free.