I think tennis stars will be able to make big money in the future and therefore I will continue being a tennis player.”
Formula for success on the racetrack
True to the Cambodian adage that “leaves can’t stray far from the base of the tree,” Alexis Chevalier, whose father was a champion race car driver in France, has been tearing up the racetrack since he was eight years old.
The 15-year-old, who is half French and half Khmer, has endured more than 80 high-speed races in France, Hungary, Spain, England, Germany and Bulgaria, without sustaining any injuries since he began competitive racing seven years ago.
He said that although the sport has yet to take off in the Kingdom, he hopes to show the world that a Cambodian can be champion.
In order to join the Formula 4 Europe Cup Championship next year, the teen must take a series of test runs and find sponsors to cover the 90,000 euros it costs to enter. He hopes to join the amateur circuit next year as a step toward Formula 1.
In the future, the over-achiever hopes to match the success of Kimi Raikkonen, one of the top drivers in Formula 1, but for now he will continue to look for sponsors and improve his driving. Even the son of a champion has to work hard to make it to the top.
ASK a young person in Cambodia what they want to be in the future and you are sure to get varied responses, ranging from engineer to accountant to teacher. One response you aren’t likely to get is: “I want to be an athlete when I grow up.”
Unlike other countries where sports can make people rich, getting a job as an athlete is unheard of to many Cambodians, and making a decent salary in sports can seem impossible. As athletics become more popular and athletes more internationally competitive, Lift set out to find out if things are changing for athletes in the Kingdom who want to make a career out of sports.
It turns out that the number of athletes making a living from their sport is small, as we guessed it would be. Yet, there are profitable athletes out there, and the likelihood of Cambodians being able to live off their skills in sports is improving.
If you follow boxing you already know Phal Sophat, a 25-year-old who has won countless medals in his seven years of competitive boxing. He is now preparing the SEA Games, which will be held in China next month. As a member of the country’s national team, he is given accommodation and 250,000 riel (about US$60) a month, but he says it is not enough to live on.
“Everything now is expensive. With this amount of money I can only buy petrol and a few other things,” he says, having ruled ruling out the idea of marriage on such a low salary.
He says that he supplements his income with fights in the country, but still struggles to get by. “Cambodian people don’t give much value to sports, and therefore athletes can’t earn much,” he said, adding that unlike foreign boxers who can earn millions of dollars for a big fight, he gets only $70 or so each time he steps into the ring.
“A foreign boxer can survive for his whole life on the money from one fight,” he says. “I can’t make that much in my whole life.”
Svay Ratha, 24, is in the same situation as Phal Sophat, and he says he will only be a boxer until he finds something better to do with his life.
“I will not be a boxer once I know what I want to be,” he says.
Although he plays a different sport and is still in high school, 17-year-old football player Ly Saroth painted the same picture when asked if he would make a career out of sports.
“Getting 20,000 riel per month is not enough to live on,” he said about his income as a professional football player. “So I have to find other job once I have the chance.”
It might seem futile to build your future around athletics; however, 20-year-old tennis phenom Orm Sambath knows differently. He told Lift that he can not only survive on the money he earns from the sport, he is able to save as well.
Every month he gets about $60 from the national team and another $60 from the Cambodian Tennis Federation. On top of that he is able to make up to $30 a week by teaching tennis, together it is more than enough to keep him happy.
He expects that his chances to make money will increase in the future, when the country’s best tennis players will be rewarded with sponsorships from companies, tennis clubs and wealthy tennis fans who want to encourage the improvement of the sport in the Kingdom.
“I think that in the future tennis players may be able to earn as much as those in foreign countries,” says Sambath, who adds that he will continue playing tennis as his profession.
Fifteen-year-old tennis player Ek Chamroeun, the defending Cambodia Open Champion in his division, says that even though he is not on the national team, he is still able to support himself because he earns more than $80 per month by teaching tennis to Cambodians and foreigners. “I think tennis stars will be able to make big money in the future and therefore I will continue being a tennis player,” he said.
But it seems that at the moment, tennis players are the most optimistic athletes around. Vath Chamroeun, the Secretary General of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia admits that only a small number of athletes get paid more than the monthly stipend of $60 that his organisation provides. However, he thinks athletes in sports such as football have a promising future and are likely to profit in the coming years since it is the most popular sport in the country and private companies are already sponsoring football clubs with both money and materials.
Vath Chamroeun says that the current payment provided to athletes on the national teams is not enough to support a family, and is not meant to be the only income for athletes. Rather, it is meant to begin to build a foundation of internationally competitive athletes who can call themselves professionals. If Cambodian athletes are to truly reach the level of other countries, he says, they would have to devote all of their time to sports rather than just two or three hours a day as is typical among his athletes right now.
“We have to distinguish between professional athletes and not professional ones,” says Vath Chamroeun, drawing a distinction between athletes who bring in money from their sport and those who don’t. If the athletes continue practising they are likely to become professional athletes in the future, he says, and make a proper salary.
“I hope that the incentive to succeed will increase and give Cambodian athletes more motivation to improve their performance, which will improve the quality of sports in the Kingdom on the whole,” said Vath Chamroeun.