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SEA Games 2023: From US to China and France, Cambodia’s naturalised athletes face scrutiny

PHNOM PENH – Among the South-east Asian Games basketball fraternity, the running joke is that when Cambodia beat Thailand 21-18 in their men’s 3x3 group match on May 6, it was actually United States that featured on court.

Dorsey Darrinray, Sayeed Pridgett and Brandon Peterson were in Cambodian blue at the Morodok Techo National Stadium Elephant Hall 2, while Tra Holder, Frederick Lish and Moses Morgan donned Thai colours.

While the likes of Holder have South-east Asian lineage with a Thai mother, the Cambodian-Americans have been naturalised specifically for the SEA Games, delivering a historic first basketball gold for the first-time hosts.

The Cambodians added Darius Henderson and Dwayne Morgan to their roster for the men’s 5v5 tournament, and handily beat powerhouses Philippines 78-68 in a group match on Thursday, leading newspaper The Philippine Star to label them as mercenaries.

Unlike International Basketball Fedeation (Fiba)-sanctioned tournaments that allow one naturalised player who has acquired the passports before 16, this year’s SEA Games basketball competition has a passport-only policy regardless of when it was acquired, and no quota.

This led to criticism from many quarters, with homegrown player Joshua Bo Nuong expressing his disappointment at missing out on a place in the Cambodia squad, and writing in a since deleted Instagram post: “They resort to this for immediate success, but they have to understand the pride in representing the people of Cambodia all around the world.

“Losing is part of learning to become better. Winning without integrity isn’t winning.”

Filipino star Jack Animam also told Rappler this was an “unfair” situation, especially to countries that have limited funds.

She added: “If there’s going to be imports like these, I don’t think the essence of the SEA Games is there. Why are we doing these SEA Games if we are not fielding our own homegrown talent?”

That said, the Philippines are also relying on naturalised players like Justin Brownlee, Christian Standhardinger and Chris Ross in their bid to regain the men’s 5v5 title.

Cambodia coach Harry Savaya bristled at the suggestion that his players are mercenaries and told The Straits Times: “They are Cambodians who bring honour to the nation, and we are playing by the rules.”

The phenomenon is not peculiar to basketball as Cambodia has appeared like a United Nations contingent at these Games.

It has been accused of “cheating” by netizens in the badminton mixed team event – already excluding stronger nations Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines – where it fielded China-born Zhou Meng under the name Chourng Meng.

Viral videos with half a million views show Zhou being ushered away from the celebrations after she and Sok Rikreay delivered the gold-medal winning point in the final against Myanmar on Wednesday.

In triathlon, the Philippines’ Kim Mangrobang was denied a fourth straight SEA Games gold medal by another Cambodian naturalised athlete, French-born Margon Garabedian.

Pakistan-born first-class cricketer Luqman Butt, as well as India-born Sahaj Chadha, Lakshit Gupta also boosted Cambodia to their first SEA Games golds in the sport, as they won the men’s T20 and 50 overs events.

Legendary pool player Efren Reyes was not spared, as he was knocked out in the men’s 3-cushion carom round of 16 by Cambodian passport-bearing South Korean Woo Dong-hoon, who went on to claim bronze. Hong Kong’s Asian Grand Master Chiu Yu Kuen and Chan Keung On also switched allegiance to Cambodia’s xiangqi team.  

However, they were less productive in table tennis, as China-born Yin Techsong and Kang Yuheng could not help the men’s team qualify for the semi-finals, while an all American-born women’s basketball team also failed to win a 3x3 medal.

While Cambodia’s moves have created a furore, it has largely achieved its objective and in just a single Games, it is on track to surpass its overall gold-medal haul of 78 gold medals since its South-east Asian Peninsula Games debut in 1961.

Its local-born athletes have also contributed, such as Chhun Bunthorn who won a historic men’s 800m gold, and the men’s indoor volleyball team who delivered a milestone silver.

And it seems like the local fans and volunteers who were wildly cheering on their compatriots at the various venues do not really care about whether their athletes are naturalised or not.

Cambodian fan Sar Pheakdey said it was understandable that the hosts would want to produce a good showing.

He said: “The popularity of some sports like basketball here is so low. Maybe our government cares only about the number of medals (at these Games) rather than the long term. But we are the hosts and we need a good number of medals.”