“What do you want to be?” is a simple question about future goals that just about everyone finds it easy to answer in a single word.
“Doctor”, “engineer”, “teacher”, “businessman” and “accountant” are perhaps the most frequent answers you would get if you approached a student with that question.
Rarely do you encounter a person saying he or she wants to be an athlete who plays sport as a profession.
Although football seems to be the sport that most draws young people’s attention, it would be wrong to overlook swimming, basketball, boxing and tennis.
Even so, many professional athletes don’t stay in that field for long. They are sometimes forced to abandon their own interests for the sake of seeking a well-paid job to support their family.
Many Cambodians seem to be ignoring – or at least paying less attention to – national sports, which hardly improves the situation.
Only those who are deeply interested in sport, and willing to devote a lot of time and effort to it, continue pursuing it as a profession.
According to “Surviving on Sport”, an article published in issue 42 of Lift magazine on October 27 last year, Phal Sophat, a 25-year-old boxer in the national team, earns only about $60 a month, plus a bonus for every fight.
Phal Sophat can barely support himself on that amount of money, let alone support a family. You couldn’t blame him for seeking another profession – particularly as boxing is not sustainable once you get older and weaker in terms of physical strength.
It’s no secret why many national athletes have decided to abandon their passion for sport.
A couple of months ago, wanting to interview a young Cambodian sports star, I made a phone call to Chang Sreypich.
I was surprised, and disappointed, to learn that this outstanding tennis player, who has competed in numerous national and international tournaments, had abandoned her sporting career to find another job and pursue higher education.
“I don’t play for the national team any more,” she said, adding that she was doing a bachelor’s degree for her promising future career.
The same applies to 17-year-old footballer Ly Saroth, who is still in high school. He says he needs to focus on his education rather than on football, the sport he enjoys most.
There are many similar cases among Cambodian athletes, although we don’t have the space to mention them here.
Because there’s less incentive to become a professional sportsman or woman, many people view sport as recreation or a hobby rather than trying to make a living from it. Unfortunately, this trend will eventually cause our sporting structure to break down.
One obvious solution would be to increase the monthly allowance for athletes, but that may be impossible because of Cambodia’s economic situation.
This is still a developing country, and many more important sectors, such as education and public health, desperately need extra funding.
When our country reaches a state where all its public services are functioning satisfactorily, things will improve, but it will take some time to reach that point.
Rather than asking for more money from the government, one step we could take immediately is for athletes themselves to try to enhance their skills and thus attract more attention from the broader public, in the hope that increased ticket sales will raise more income.
Passion inspires people to participate in sport, and it would be great if we could create a friendly environment for youngsters who are interested in sport to pursue that passion.
High schools and universities should set aside some space for students to play whatever sports they like, such as football, basketball or volleyball, just as universities in foreign countries do.
Daejeon University, in the Republic of Korea, even has a stadium and two gymnasiums that cater for all kinds of sports and can be used by all students.
Finally, to improve the quality of athletes, I think it’s a good idea to nurture students who love sport while they’re in high school, particularly as there is provision for sports sessions in our secondary curriculum.
Serious training, with professional trainers or coaches, should be put in place to produce more quality athletes for the Cambodian nation.