As the race to preen talented young Cambodian athletes ahead of the country hosting the 2023 Southeast Asian Games gets under way, Marissa Carruthers and Steve Noble shine the spotlight on the development of the country’s sports.

Kitted out in their blue and red tracksuits, the mood is jovial as the Cambodian athletes board the plane. Laughter hangs heavy in the air as fellow countrymen, who happen to be sharing the flight from Singapore to Phnom Penh, congratulate them on their success at the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games).

“There is a great spirit here,” shouts Un Sreya above the excited chatter of her teammates, who are posing for photographs onboard. After spending two weeks competing in 22 out of the 36 disciplines that made up this year’s Singapore-hosted games, the team is heading home. And with it, bringing a clutch of 15 medals – one gold, five silver and nine bronze – after finishing eighth out of 11 countries, one place ahead of their 2013 efforts.

“It has been great to see more young players on the teams,” adds Un, who scooped a silver medal in petanque, or boules, during the multi-sports competition. “I think this will encourage more young people in Cambodia to try sports in the future so we will only get better.”

With Cambodia set to be the official host of the biennial SEA Games in 2023, hopes are high that this will drive investment into developing the Kingdom’s youth sport offerings, and steps are already being taken in the right direction. In January, the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) unveiled grand plans to boost the areas of sporting infrastructure, athlete development and games management.

To meet the international standards necessary to host the event, the multi-million dollar Morodok Techo National Sports Complex is being constructed on a 94-hectare plot of land near National Road 5 in Russei Keo, on the outskirts of the capital. And during a ceremony in June, Prime Minister Hun Sen outlined plans to raise athletes’ basic salaries and allowances by 50 percent to $434 a month.

While the country’s sporting field is still largely undeveloped, NGOs, companies and individuals are working to boost grass level games and nurture the next generation of athletes. Tennis Cambodia general secretary, Tep Rithivit, who helped re-introduce the game to Cambodia, says, “It is necessary to their growth that children are introduced to sport. It brings people together and brings a competitive level, regardless of background.”

When Tep returned to his homeland, having left with his family for Canada in 1973, he was determined to revive the sport that his father Tep Khunnah had represented Cambodia in during the 50s and 60s. He felt it his duty to rekindle the sport he is so passionate about.

So when he returned 23 years ago, he set his plans in motion. “Take up was slow at first,” he says, recalling how his first students were a handful of ball boys who showed up for the free food. However, by 1996 the tennis federation held its debut competition, which was named in honour of his father who died the previous year.

The following year, which Tep refers to as the team’s “lowest point”, the tennis players failed to win a game at the SEA Games, tumbling straight to the bottom of the table. However, at the same competition a decade later, and they were celebrating scooping their first bronze medal – this marked the change of fortune for tennis. “We have got better and better,” Tep adds.

It is through his and other federation members’ commitment that the game has grown to be the success it is today, with the team regularly competing in the Davis Cup, and tennis introduced into hundreds of schools nationwide, providing kids with a platform to shine. Believing in inclusivity, Cambodia Tennis has also provided people with disabilities living in Battambang with adapted wheelchairs and other equipment to play the sport.

“It isn’t all about performance,” Tep adds. “It’s about inclusion, education and accessibility to sport for children. In turn, the more we do this, the more likely we are to find a champion. My job is to put the first tennis racket in someone’s hand, however, I will do my utmost to make something happen for the SEA Games in 2023, that’s for sure.”

The egg-shaped ball bounces awkwardly from Sothea Tho on the patchy sand and grass field. The surface hardened by the baking sun makes it no less easy for the nine-year-old to catch up with the rugby ball.

Tho is one of more than 650 Cambodian youths who have been introduced to the oval ball, and rugby, thanks to Kampuchea Balopp, the NGO launched in 2013 to promote grassroots rugby development and use sports as a tool for youth education. Along with other organisations, its efforts have increased the popularity and progress of the game, which made its Cambodian debut about 15 years ago.

Inclusivity is key, and the sport in Cambodia is proof of this. Both girls and boys can be seen running around the pitch, and work with partners, such as Action Cambodge Handicap and Krousar Thmey, has seen children with disabilities incorporated into the game.

Recently, Phnom Penh Social Rugby Club (PPSRC), nicknamed Shining Rahus, formed through the merger of Stade Khmer, Sisowath Knights and PP Touch rugby. The move aimed to drive adults to play the sport.

Fabien Dutasta, a French national who is the driving force behind the formation, says, “The lack of infrastructure or the costs can be a limitation to make sport available to everyone [in Cambodia]. People in Cambodia are passionate about sport and would probably practice more if it were available more widely, and free. It cannot be a few people’s work but a federation of actors working to the development of sport.”

The PPSRC wants to be a promoter of two great values of rugby: inclusion and team spirit, adds Dutasta. “It is not necessarily the result on the field that matters most, but the friendship, cultural exchange and passion for our sport. We would like to develop adult rugby for both women and men, locals and expats, touch rugby and contact, so everyone can find her or his place in our sport.”

In the North West of Phnom Penh, on a dirt road past new urban development projects and on, what was less than a year ago, undeveloped land sits the sparkling new RSN Stadium, home to Phnom Penh Crown FC.

Grass fields are limited in the capital, however, the football club embarked upon an ambitious project to create the best club facilities in the country, and, arguably, the best youth academy structure.

Football is undoubtedly the most popular sport in Cambodia, and the number of youngsters taking up the sport is on the rise. “Access to football is increasing across the Kingdom, with the influx of small artificial surfaces,” says Tom Legg, Phnom Penh Crown FC’s academy technical director. “This is certainly a positive step towards encouraging more kids to take part in the game.”

The Cambodian national team last month played against Singapore in their first World Cup qualifying second round game at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, losing 4-0 but drawing a crowd of 52,500.  They went on to lose to Afghanistan 1-0.

“There is undoubtedly an appetite for football in Cambodia,” adds Legg.

Development is key to its progress, with the challenge lying in capturing the interest of young players, as well as providing rising stars with access to quality coaching and training, claims Legg. With top-notch facilities at the club including on site physiotherapists and access to saunas, cold baths and dormitories to house and educate young players, Phnom Penh Crown FC has created a unique opportunity for developing young talent.

Providing a launchpad for talented footballers, the club offers a five-year scholarship, covering living, schooling, personal development and medical expenses for the duration. A total of 56 youngsters are currently enrolled in the programme across three age categories: Under 13, Under 15 and Under 17.

Phanat Ouch recalls the first time he bounced a basketball on the court, being taught how to play by his brother at the ripe age of five. The siblings trained together daily, with Ouch picking up the sport with ease. “In the US, it’s a big sport. Pretty much everyone plays it there. I started in high school and loved it,” says the 34-year-old, who moved to Long Beach, California, from a refugee camp when six-months-old in 1981.

After moving to Texas, Ouch was crowned team captain for three consecutive years during his time at Texas State University, where he studied finance. However, when he returned to his homeland in 2007, he found a gaping hole in his life – basketball. “It hardly existed here,” he recalls. “No one really knew what it was. I wanted to help change this.”

Based in Siem Reap, he started teaching the sport to school children, and it wasn’t long before he was invited to join the IRB Lords Cambodia Basketball League (CBL) for one season. He has played for Pate 10, the defending champs, for the last two seasons, making it into the finals twice and winning once.

“I thought this was my chance to help develop the sport in Cambodia,” the 34-year-old says. “However, it wasn’t easy and there were some growing pains. Firstly, we had to find people who wanted to play. Then we had to find referees and officials. It was difficult but as the years have gone by, we have got more teams and have improved.”

The Point Guard player, who also coaches budding players, believes sport offers a wealth of benefits to children. “Not only does it help them keep fit, it also helps to teach kids about team playing, leadership, trusting one another. It also gives young people something to do; keeps them off the streets or joining gangs.”

His commitment to the game, and hard work with the young, has led to six teams being formed and ready to compete in Siem Reap this month, showing basketball’s popularity in the Kingdom is constantly growing.

Having recently returned from the SEA Games where Cambodia came sixth out of nine, beating Myanmar and Vietnam, Ouch says the grooming has already begun for elite players to secure the Kingdom a hopeful home win when it hosts the 2023 competition. And he believes the games being played in Cambodia will help to boost investment in athletics nationwide.

“It has to have a positive effect,” he says, tossing a ball to a group of young children. “We need more coaches and facilities. There are a few players who get paid, which is a step forward, but we need more. Primary school age is the best age to start playing if you want to be professional, and that is what we are trying to nurture.”

School Sports
The Cambodian school curriculum is lacking the physical education classes that are ever-present in the Western world. This often means it is NGOs and private schools that provide the impetus for the creation of youth leagues to promote competition.

The International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP) is one example of how sport is being nurtured through education. The new campus south of the capital boasts some of the country’s top sporting facilities, where expansive manicured grass fields sit alongside an Olympic-size swimming pool and indoor basketball courts.

ISPP also encourages physical activities by competing in the MRISA (Mekong River International School Association) League against other international schools in Southeast Asia. It also takes part in the International School Sports Association Phnom Penh.

On the opposite side of the city, ISPP rivals Lycee Francais Rene Descartes are also regular competitors in various sports. The school’s PE Teacher, Jerome Alfonsi, believes if Cambodia is to thrive on the international stage, more investment needs to be made into the country’s young.

“The Ministry of Sports and NOCC need to lead a very ambitious change in the politics of sport in managing a budget for a big youth sport programme by advancing the development of coaches, participation of sport in school and the quality and involvement of Cambodian athletes,” he says.

With so much promise for the long-term future of competitive sport in the Kingdom, it waits to be seen whether this will turn into gold come the hosting of the SEA Games in 2023.

However, one thing for sure is that, regardless of the result during the competition, this will not be for the lack of trying on the part of individuals and organisations, who are all committed to the development of the country’s future sportspeople and young athletes.