Adrenalin was high amid flashes of lightning in the humid air of Phnom Penh as spectators crowded into the new 60,000 capacity, Chinese-built Morodok Techo National Stadium.
Amid performers intermingling national flags and fireworks echoing like a starting pistol, a flame was extinguished and the Southeast Asian Games were declared closed.
The 17 May ceremony signalled the close of the 32nd iteration of the bi-annual regional sports event. The Kingdom’s first time as host saw participants from 11 Southeast Asian countries vie for victory in 37 different sports, the highest number of any SEA Games so far.
Now, at the finish line of more than two weeks of intense competition, the games have strengthened national identities, resurfaced old rivalries and laid the terrain for new sports and generations of future athletic champions from the region.
There were 581 medals at stake in this year’s games, with last year’s host Vietnam yet again emerging in pole position with 355 medals in total, including 136 gold.
The country set a winning pace when they beat Cambodia and gained an early victory over Laos in the “Group of Death” qualifying football tournament, which took place before the games’ official opening during the week of 24 April.
The Vietnamese team racked up further victories in track and field, three-cushion carom billiards and Kun Khmer kickboxing, putting their final tally a commanding 42 ahead of Thailand, which came in second place with 313 medals. Indonesia placed third, with Cambodia taking fourth.
On the other end of the spectrum, Timor-Leste trailed in 11th place, with eight bronze medals spread across taekwondo, boxing and karate.
But behind the medal tallies are individual stories of personal motivation and achievement, particularly for host-country Cambodia.
Runner Bou Samnang, 20, went viral after fighting to complete the women’s 5,000m race in a heavy downpour. Though she came in last, Samnang inspired viewers with her determination to reach the finish-line on behalf of the Kingdom.
Fellow Cambodian Chhun Bunthorn made history when he won the country’s first gold medal for athletics after clinching first place in the 800m race. The games also saw the entry of Cambodia’s women’s football team qualifying for the semi-finals.
The team had spent six months training in China as part of an official arrangement, according to Sareth Keo, general secretary of the Cambodia Football Association.
“Beforehand, we never used to focus so much on women’s football,” Sareth said. “Now, the women’s team is doing better than the men’s.”
Inspirational narratives aside, the games weren’t without their share of drama that ran contrary to the otherwise carefully constructed messages of regional collaboration and friendship.
Thailand boycotted the Kun Khmer event after unsuccessfully demanding Cambodia refer to the sport as Muay Thai. The fighting disciplines are very similar, enough to where the countries regularly host cross-border bouts, and both sides claim to be originators of the style.
Fighting also broke out on the football field during the men’s football final on 16 May, which erupted into a brawl between the Indonesian and Thai teams.
Coaches and players tore into each other following Indonesia’s mistaken early exit from the pitch, allowing Thailand to equalise 2-2 on a penalty. Five red cards were handed out to each team, and Indonesia eventually gained a 5-2 victory, winning their first gold medal in the sport.
But despite the fierce rivalries, regional alliances and building relations lies at the roots of the SEA Games.
“[It] is always an excellent opportunity to unite countries to rally and support their country’s best athletes … [and] also an opportunity for cultural exchange,” said Emily Ortega, head of psychology programme and sports psychology specialist at Singapore’s University of Social Sciences.
The region’s largest sporting event has its origins in the first Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1958, following a delegates’ meeting that same year at the Asian Games in Tokyo.
The brainchild of Luang Sukhum Nayapradit, then-vice president of the Thailand Olympic Committee, the first SEAP Games took place in Bangkok eight years before the founding of the ASEAN bloc.
Hosted under the late King Bhumibol, the event welcomed more than 527 regional athletes from the six founding countries – Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, South Vietnam and Laos – who competed across 12 sports. In an early hint of the political considerations that attend the games, host Thailand made the inaugural event exclusive to neighbours which shared its anti-communist interests.
The SEAP Games Federation was founded the next year with a symbol of six interlinked gold rings, each representing a founding nation.
The recent games also served as an opportunity for regional leaders to meet and discuss bilateral collaboration. The visiting Laos President Thoungloun Sisoulith reportedly had discussions with Hun Sen about enhanced disaster relief collaboration. And as Timor-Leste progresses towards its goal of ASEAN membership, former Timorese President Xanana Gusmão’s attendance at the opening ceremonies could be seen as a public sign of strengthened ties between the two countries.
But hosting countries can also capitalise on the opportunity to boost their own soft power and national interests, not just through the selection of sports.
For this year’s SEA Games, the $160 million stadium that hosted the opening ceremony, neighbouring 3,000-capacity aquatic centre and 6,100 bed athlete village are a signal of Cambodia’s status to the wider region. Accommodation and food for the 5,300 athletes is estimated to have cost the Kingdom approximately $550,000, an investment in regional status.
Geopolitics aside, for many athletes, the games represent a cherished opportunity to compete on the world stage.
For some, it was a long time coming. Cambodian football organiser Keo is a former professional footballer who used to play on the national team. He says he would have loved to represent his country, but his peak fitness and playing years coincided with the era when the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule from 1975-79.
Now, as the closing ceremony draws near, he feels a sense of victory for Cambodia that is not related to the medal tally or the evolving diplomatic relations, but a sense of history overcome.
“We have been waiting for 64 years,” he said. “This is about more than sport, more than football.”