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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hidden depths to a Cambodian sporting hero

Hidden depths to a Cambodian sporting hero

Chim Phan, 30, won 3 medals in the FESPIC disabled games in Bangkok.

CHIM Phan figured he was doing pretty well in the FESPIC disabled games in Bangkok

when he qualified for the final in his 100m sprint heat. "I was glad because

I remembered that the normal sprinters [from Cambodia] never got to the finals [in

the recent Asian Games]," he said.

However, Phan, 30, didn't just run in the final. He won the silver medal. He went

on to place in his two other events as well, making him the hero of the games. With

a second silver in the 400m and a bronze as part of the 4 x 100m relay, Phan helped

account for three of Cambodia's five medals in its first appearance.

"Before, I didn't have any feeling that I would get any medals," admitted

the soft-spoken Phan. "On the first day in Bangkok, I was a little bit nervous

because I saw the other teams, they arrived with a lot of medical officials and other

facilities... I thought to myself that I would not win."

Cambodia sent 38 athletes to the Jan 10-16 Far East and South Pacific games. The

volleyball team brought home a silver medal, and Nop Rotha won a bronze in the 800m

run. Team spokesman Prum Bun Thai said the result was a triumph for the young, inexperienced

athletes.

"We have got a satisfying result because we not only got experience, but medals

for our country," he said, noting that the spectators were especially supportive

of the Cambodians. "I feel very glad that on behalf of Cambodian disabled people

that we escaped from disappointment and insults from society."

Opportunities for disabled people to shine are rare in Cambodia, although an estimated

40,000 people here - about one in 250 - have lost limbs to the landmines scattered

throughout the country.

Phan had his right leg amputated above the knee in 1995, after stepping on a mine

in a Kandal rice field. He said the process of learning to live disabled, and to

walk again, was a struggle.

"I was very depressed after I lost my leg," he said. "I thought at

that time in the future I would never be able to do anything ... For one or two months

at the beginning, I had a lot of difficulty even to stand, or walk." But once

he mastered walking on the stiff prosthesis, he said running was not hard.

CHIM PHAN

Sportsman and counselor

He was a keen volleyball player at school, and says he prefers it to running. But

the running trials were held first, so he competed in those and was selected for

the national team, which will also compete in the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.

Phan, who had never competed in an international race before, smiled as he remembered

his slow start out of the blocks in the first heat.

"The referee spoke in Thai, at the beginning I didn't understand, so I started

later than the rest," he said. "For the final, I knew, so I started at

the same time as the others."

Prum Bun Thai said money and organization were a problem for the team as a whole,

noting that two marathoners were not allowed to compete because they lacked regulation

caps, and some leg amputees were wrongly put in races against arm amputees.

An initial report on the games prepared by Christopher Minko, advisor to the National

Paralympic Committee, notes that the national team had only two administrative staff

and three team leaders, while most other teams had one official per three athletes.

But it expressed hope that the "resounding success of the Cambodian team"

would help in securing future funding, noting that offers had come in from event

organizers and heads of other countries' delegations.

Phan knows what it's like to be an underfunded athlete. He said he can only train

on the weekends, as he is too busy working during the week. "I was a little

bit sorry that I did not come in first, but it's not regrettable, because I didn't

have the support; my training was less than the others."

He has a special prosthesis for running, different from his everyday leg. But he

says: "It is a cheap leg. I want to save money to buy the best quality leg for

Sydney. I think if I have the best quality artificial leg I will win a medal in Sydney."

The leg he wants to buy costs $3300. He only earns $80 per month making wheelchairs

at a local disabled center, and supports a wife and two young daughters. His family

was unable to travel to Bangkok to watch his races.

"They were very proud, but there was no way to watch it," he said, adding

that they could not even afford to throw a victory party for him. Nor has the government

acknowledged its winning athletes, he says.

Still, he is looking forward to Sydney. In the meantime, he will continue to train,

and also continue his work as a volunteer counselor at a local disabled center for

recent amputees.

"I explain to them not to be depressed, but to struggle ... for the future."

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