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SEA Games 2023: 10 of the best and worst moments

As the 32nd SEA Games drew to a close, The Straits Times’ men on the ground Deepanraj Ganesan, David Lee and Jonathan Wong relived the highs and lows of the action in Cambodia.

Here are ST’s picks for the event’s 10 moments to remember.

1. Most inspiring moment

Cambodia’s Chhun Bunthorn celebrates winning the gold in the men’s 800m during the medal ceremony. PHOTO: REUTERS

Unlike the athletes Cambodia naturalised to boost their medal haul, Chhun Bunthorn is a Prey Veng native. The 29-year-old’s ambition was to become an architect. He received a two-year university scholarship in 2012 but was forced to give up his studies after the bursary ended and he could not afford the tuition fees. Turning his attention to athletics, he finally won Cambodia’s first track gold at his home Games in the men’s 800m, sobbing after he crossed the finish line.

2. Best comeback

Philippines’ Maria Cristina Villanueva (in red) competes against Cambodia’s Vannak Sambat on May 15, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Filipina wrestler Maria Cristina Vergara showed that age is just a number when the 44-year-old came out of retirement to win a gold medal in the women’s freestyle 65kg, adding to her triumphs in 2003 and 2005. Vergara hung up her suit after the 2007 SEA Games but proved that even after 16 years, she still had what it took to win gold. What made it extra special was her 18-year-old daugther Cathlyn winning bronze in the 59kg class at the same Games.

In the Singapore camp, table tennis player Zeng Jian also demonstrated a never-say-die attitude by clinching her first gold medal after losing four previous finals. She did so in dramatic fashion, leading 3-0 in the women’s singles final before trailing, and then fighting back to win.

3. Biggest disappointment

Singapore’s Jordan Emaviwe is kicked in the face by Thailand’s Phongsakon Trisat in their group match on April 30, 2023. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The bar was set low for football, and somehow the Singapore Under-22 men’s team still managed to go below it. The side finished the tournament rock bottom in Group B, behind Laos on goal difference and for the first time since 1987, the Republic also ended their campaign without a single victory. To perform badly is one thing but to lose 7-0 to Malaysia, who also failed to progress to the knockout stage? That takes the cake.

4. Most Valuable Player

Athletes, volunteers and officials dance on the wrestling stage after the medal ceremony for wrestling has ended. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

We are no experts in the Khmer language, but one term we quickly learnt was the chirpy sousdey (hello). The local volunteers, numbering about 5,000, were hard to miss in their purple jerseys, and hard to forget for their warmth and hospitality as they ensured the smooth running of Cambodia’s first SEA Games. The sight of hundreds of performers prancing around, practising for the closing ceremony in the searing heat was especially moving. Arkoun chraen (thank you very much)!

5. Most sporting moment

Ong Jung Yi is congratulated by Thailand’s Navaphat Wongcharoen from Thailand after winning the men’s 200m butterfly final. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Before Phnom Penh, Singapore swimmer Ong Jung Yi had competed at three previous SEA Games but never won a race. After his 200m butterfly final, as he stood poolside trying to comprehend what he had finally accomplished, a steady stream of swimmers – his teammates as well as rivals – came to congratulate him. Maybe they wanted to thank him too. He had, after all, reminded them of something powerful in sport, which was never to give up.

6. Most controversial moment

Cambodia’s Meng Chourng and Sok Rikreay in action against Myanmar’s Aung Htoo and Thet Thuzar during mixed doubles. PHOTO: REUTERS

China-born Zhou Meng was reported to be competing for Cambodia in the badminton mixed team event under the name Chourng Meng. She won all her matches, including the deciding women’s doubles match in the final against Myanmar. As her teammates mobbed her, she was suddenly led away by an official. Despite her perfect streak, she was not seen in the individual events. She was not the only one competing under an alias for the hosts, who copped flak for naturalising athletes from other countries.

Chaos and controversy erupted in e-sports when Indonesia accused Singapore of cheating, with the former first forfeiting the final before walking out when it restarted many hours later. Both teams eventually shared the gold and they can also share ST’s award for the most controversial moment of the Games.

7. Best souvenir

Quah Ting Wen celebrates winning the gold alongside Philippines’ Jasmine Alkhaldi and Vietnam’s Nguyen Thuy Hien. PHOTO: REUTERS

Vietnam’s Nguyen Thuy Hien may have won only a bronze at the Games but she will go home with another priceless memento: A photo with her idol, Singapore swimmer Quah Ting Wen. Nguyen, 13, and Quah, 30, both competed in the women’s 100m freestyle. “Winning a medal is beyond my expectations. I’m really happy to compete with Quah Ting Wen, one of my idols,” Hien said to Viet media.

8. Best quote

Singapore’s men’s water polo players celebrate winning the round-robin match against Cambodia. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

As Singapore’s water polo men reclaimed their gold, captain Lee Kai Yang attributed the success to the players’ families. He said: “The sacrifice is greatest not from the players but from the family members. Because it’s not their dream, but they are the ones that say: ‘Go ahead, go chase it’.”

9. Best celebration

Nget Deb from Cambodia carries Ariel Lee Biadno Lampacan from Philippines on his back in a reciprocal move. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

In Kun Bokator, despite losing the men’s 55kg combat final, Ariel Lee Biadno Lampacan from the Philippines was gracious in defeat and carried Cambodian Nget Deb on his back for a victory parade around the ring. To the delight of the crowd, the Cambodian returned the favour.

10. New 100 fly event

Fly traps had to be deployed to catch the flies likely attracted to the food brought in by visitors. ST PHOTO: DAVID LEE

Dealing with the housefly situation at the Morodok Techo National Stadium almost felt like a sports event. Singapore table tennis player Wong Xin Ru jumped before a serve because of a fly, and athletes had to comically beat the pests away during interviews. Fly traps had to be deployed and Wong’s teammate Beh Kun Ting even traded his bat for an electric swatter on the final day of competition.


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