With record money spent on infrastructure and the upcoming games receiving regular political updates, it is obvious that they are about much more than sport. Just how important though is hosting the games for national prestige and can they create a genuine lasting legacy in Cambodia?
To read about Prime-Minister Hun Sen’s recent comments click here
Hosting the 2023 SEA Games
The 2023 Southeast Asian Games commonly branded as Cambodia 2023, will be the 32nd edition of the South-East Asian, a biennial sports olympics type event due to be held from 5 to 17 May 2023, predominantly in Phnom Penh, although some events are set to held in other cities, such as Sihanoukville.
The games were awarded to the Kingdom at the SEA Games Federation Council meeting at Singapore, which coincided with the 2015 games in the country. This gave the country eight years to prepare, and perhaps more importantly the national prestige of being trusted to host the games for the first time.
Why has it taken Cambodia so long to host the SEA Games?
During the swinging 60’s Cambodia was not only a relative regional powerhouse, but also largely politically stable by regional standards, boating not only healthy relations with the west, but also within the Eastern Bloc. The later friendship would lead to the only international athletics tournament the country has yet hosted to date, the 1966 GANEFO games, dubbed by some as the “Olympics of the Left”.
You can read more about GANEFO here.
Sadly this was though to mark the pinnacle of both sporting prowess and indeed stability, with the drifting into the civil war and the bitter years of Khmer Rouge rule between 1975-79 in which up to 3 million people died. Despite the end of the Pol Pot regime was was to continue in some form or another until 1998, when the country was finally able to start the rebuilding process.
Despite the peace though the country remained not only scarred by its history, but also seriously underdeveloped. Since then things have improved greatly, with the country averaging a 7.7 percent annual growth (pre-Covid) and slowly transitioning into where it is today, aiming for middle-income status by 2030.
Cambodia though remains and a mystery to many internationally, with perceptions still being that the country remains war-torn and underdeveloped, a narrative very different to how things actually are on the ground.
Essentially until now the country was either not politically stable enough to host the games, or quite simply could not afford it. Things though are different now.
How much did the 2023 SEA Games cost and is it worth it?
According to government figures the cost of hosting the games is around $140 million, although this excludes the construction of the Morodok Stadium, which will serve as the showpiece venue of the games. It is estimated that it cost around $150 million to build, although this was, officially at least funded in its entirety by China.
This gives us a figure of up to $300 million, depending on how you want to count things, but also does not include income that will be derived by the influx of tourists, spectators and athletes into the country, nor the huge sums that will be clawed back through sponsorship of the event, numbers we will not know until the games are finished. As with any event like this and of course the money involved this has drew some criticism. The most standard critique as with any project like this being that the money could have been spent on “better things”, such as hospitals or the like.
This though is not only short sighted, but is essentially straw man theory stuff. What hosting the games will do is not only show new visitors that the Kingdom is safe, stable and open for business, but more importantly the wider world. This can only be good for business and investment in Cambodia, a common benefit achieved by many countries that have hosted similar events. This is brand building for Cambodia on the local and international stage.
Creating a sporting legacy in Cambodia
Politics, business and growth aside the tournament is also about sport, creating more opportunities and indeed leaving a sporting legacy in Cambodia. Sport in general has changed massively within the Kingdom in the last 30 years, going from Soviet style state amateurism to one in which Khmer men and women can not only earn a living, but travel and shine on a world stage.
This has been evidenced across the sporting arena within Cambodia, such as with the launching of the Cambodian Premier League, promotion in the Davis Cup at tennis, top Khmer players winning and earning huge sums in Thai Boxing, to even a local club qualifying for the Gaelic Football world cup in Ireland. Small steps, but ones that would have been impossible not all that long ago.
To read about the Khmer team traveling to Ireland for the GAA World Cup click here.
All these factors combined mean that this is genuinely an exciting time to be involved in sport in Cambodia, whether you are an armchair fan, competitor, or even an investor. As the Cambodian middle classes grow, thus so does the amount off people with expandable income for things such as sport, meaning there really is no better time for the country to be showing itself on the world stage.
Overall though and perhaps most importantly the 2023 SEA Games can create the best legacy of all, changing the global narrative about the country from a war-torn country reliant on donors, to what it actually is, a young, stable and up and coming democracy that has so much to offer the world.