Cambodians will get to watch their athletes compete at the upcoming Southeast Asian Games live on local television, and the telecasts could be a step towards reviving Cambodia’s sporting life, officials said Tuesday.
Speaking at a news conference at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, sports officials announced that TV5 will broadcast the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies and several events live. The Games are scheduled to open Sept 8 in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite the national exposure at the international competition, Cambodians should not raise their hopes too much, said Cambodian Olympic Committee General Secretary Meas Sarin. This year has been difficult because of the renovation of the National Olympic Stadium, which has kept athletes from training, he said.
“Please understand our situation now,” Meas Sarin pleaded.
From 1955 to 1970, the combination of ample facilities and the nation’s neutrality made for what National Olympic Committee President My Samedy called a “golden era.” Phnom Penh was actually selected to host the December 1963 SEAP Games, a predecessor to the Southeast Asian Games. That event was never held due to financial problems.
That was before the Khmer Rouge era. The country hasn’t won a gold medal in the Games since 1979, My Samedy said. Most of the athletes who would have been coaches today died or fled during the genocidal regime.
Aside from petanque—a variation of lawn bowling—and kickboxing, Cambodian sports are at a low point, Meas Sarin said.
Former Olympic swimmer Hem Thon agrees that the Khmer Rouge cost Cambodia a shot at athletic glory.
“Phnom Penh had the facilities for every sport at that time. Phnom Penh had a National Institute of Sports and facilities behind the National University for tennis, football, soccer, swimming, and diving,” he said.
Cambodian officials still want to host the SEA Games in the near future. Despite the fact that for all intents and purposes there is no Olympic Stadium, My Samedy, 78, still harbors the hope that Phnom Penh will host the Games in his lifetime.
“We have to win a medal in the Games. You cannot host the Games without medals,” he said.
Hem Thon is more skeptical. Without an enormous package of international aid, the games would be impossible here for another 40 years, he said.
Cambodia’s early post-colonial successes were probably due to regional politics, Hem Thon said. Cambodia enjoyed a period of peaceful neutrality, while its main rivals, Vietnam and Laos, were forced to devote resources to military campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.
That all changed under the Khmer Rouge. “I had to concentrate on survival instead,” Hem Thon said. During the Khmer Rouge years, many of the coaches and athletes died or left Cambodia and the country had to start from scratch in 1979, which was when he began coaching again.
Over 20 years later, he said Cambodia’s new generation of athletes are at a turning point. So it is frustrating that a group with so much potential is being stopped not by war but by the renovation of the Olympic Stadium.
“The athletes have nowhere to train, and private facilities are too expensive. Some athletes are beginning to lose confidence,” he said.
Hem Thon said sports events are especially important because they can make citizens proud of their country. A total of 77 athletes in 14 sports will be trying to make Cambodians proud.
At the news conference Tuesday, 18-year-old boxer Troeung Sosvannak said he was confident.
“We will medal in this year’s games,” he said. “We have been training very hard.”
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)