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Cambodia's Olympic dream

Photo by Nina Loacker/ Phnom Penh Post

In exactly 12 weeks time, the United Kingdom will host the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. On July 27, London will throw open its arms to the world, welcoming the fastest, strongest, most skilful athletes to the greatest sporting contest on earth.

Nineteen-year-old Hem Thon Vitiny from Cambodia will be among the 10,500 international sports men and women competing for glory in the two-week-long event. I met her during one of her training sessions at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh as she prepared for her second appearance at the Games in her specialist race, the 50-mere freestyle.

When I arrive, Vitiny is ploughing length after length in the deep turquoise water of the outdoor diving pool. Her coach, her uncle Kiry Hem, stood on the edge, stopwatch in hand.

While we watch Vitiny flash across the short distance in the evening sunlight, I ask him what his hopes are for this year’s competition. “Since the Bejing Games, she has developed a lot,” he tells me.

“She’s improved her technique, her strength and her mental attitude. Since 2008, she has competed at the SEA Games and the World Championships. These are big events and now she has met all these swimmers, she knows what to expect and is more confident.”

Kiry himself has represented his country in the pool at both the Sydney and Athens Games and understands what Vitiny is going through. The Olympics are very different to competing in Cambodia, he says. The crowds are bigger, the noise louder and the pressure far more intense.

The strain of the demands put on her body and time, however, are not evident as Vitany clambers, dripping, out of the pool to answer a few questions.

The lithe youth is all smiles as we sit down on a poolside bench. When I ask her about how her routine has changed in preparation for the games, she laughingly says that it’s business as usual! She is eating and sleeping the same and fitting in her regular 3km swim every evening.

She later confesses that it can be difficult to organise her training around her studies. She is in her sophomore year at Phnom Penh International University, studying English Literature, and with the travel that is part and parcel of international competition it can be difficult to have a social life.

Swimming has been Vitiny’s life and the sport runs in her family: she first jumped into a pool at the age of five. as well as her uncle Kimy’s professional success, another uncle trains beside her in the pool and her grandfather was also a swimmer and coach. She is lucky to have this support around her: Cambodian athletes are paid just US$60 a month and are provided meals at the National Training Centre, and there can be no doubt that her family’s encouragement and expertise is invaluable.

She lights up when I ask her whether she is looking forward to the experience of London. “Imagine my surprise and amazement to be [one of ] Cambodia’s representatives at the Olympics. I am totally proud to be there with so many famous athletes and to be competing while the world is watching,” she says.

Her ambitions for the competition are modest but, still in her teens, she is looking long term, “My skill is growing, step by step,” she says. “At the Olympics in London I want a medal. I don’t think that Cambodia’s ability is up there yet, but I will try.” She tells me that she wants to pursue a career as an athlete as long as she has the power and fitness, and that after that she would like to become a coach.

It is difficult not to notice the very basic nature of the facilities at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium and to compare them to the state-of-the-art gyms, pools and equipment, as well as the armies of expert nutritionists, psychologists and physicians that are available to Vitiny’s competitors from other nations.

“It doesn’t matter about the clothes and kit,” she insists, “but the pool dates from 1964 and there is no prospect of a new one. It’s not just the US, UK and Germany that have better facilities, but regional neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam are much better equipped.” Again, her passion for the future of her sport in Cambodia is apparent when she expresses concern for the next generation. “The team would be more competitive if we had a better pool, but it’s not just about me. More and better pools would encourage more young swimmers to become involved,” she says.

The motto of the London Olympic Games is “inspire a generation”. If anyone can help encourage young Cambodian to participate in sport and to strive for progress, Hem Thon Vitany is the one.



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