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Taekwondo champion Sorn David
Taekwondo champion Sorn David Eli Meixler

Young stars losing hope for the future

For five years, Peou Sophoan was a star rugby player. As part of the national women’s team, she played at the SEA Games in Thailand and championships in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Australia. Elsewhere in the world, it would seem like the start of a glittering career, but in 2010, she was forced to stop for a simple reason: she couldn’t afford it.

With few internationally renowned athletes and teams in everything from boxing to football trailing at the bottom of - or absent from - the league tables, the day that Cambodia makes a mark on the global sports stage looks to be in the distant future.

Current and former sportsmen and women like 25-year-old Sophoan say it’s not due to a lack of talent. A shortage of resources and a lack of government support mean that many promising athletes are forced to give up before they get started.

“I think there are many talented people playing sport, but they lose the motivation and confidence to do it professionally,” said Sophoan.

One of the most immediate problems is the cost of equipment, but the most threatening possibility is that young people playing contact sports like rugby may have an accident.

“It is dangerous to break a hand, leg or have another accident – no one will take care and pay for treatment,” Sophoan said. “In other countries, when players have an accident, they have good support.”

It wasn’t always this way. Even though sport education was only introduced in Cambodia in 1863, by the 1950s, schools in the city and villages provided grounds for players to train with specialised coaches.

The country won many gold, silver and bronze medals in international competition, and athletes were frequently sent abroad for training – funded by the government.

But after the destruction of the Khmer Rouge regime, the sports sector was forced to start again from scratch.

Before, Kampong Cham, Battambang and Siem Reap were each home to professional football clubs, but these have all faded away. The space remains, but there are no coaches or officially organised teams.

National swimming legend Hem Thon made his national championship debut in 1960 and went on to win 12 medals at international competitions.

Now 74, and deputy general secretary of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, he sees many difficulties faced by players and coaches.

“There is not enough value placed on sport, so [young athletes] feel weak and abandon it,” he said.

If a talented player is noticed, the Olympic Committee may choose them to become a national athlete and fund their training.

Until then, however, all funds must be raised by the aspiring sportsman – a prohibitive expense for many.

And though the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports provides food and accommodation for national athletes, they must pay for their own travel and suffer a shortage of equipment and resources.

“These are the challenges which discourage Cambodia’s next generation from playing sport, so the human resources in the sports sector are reducing,” he said.

Ly Nary / female marathon runner
Ly Nary / female marathon runner

National athletes can only expect to be paid around $100 per month, though they receive free accommodation, according to 22-year-old Sorn Davin, a taekwondo champion.

In 2012, she became Cambodia’s first female flag bearer at an Olympic Games when she led the delegation at the Opening Ceremony of the London Games.

“The participation of young people [in sport] increases day by day, even though it’s not yet a satisfactory number, it shows that Cambodians are interested.”

The interest of the general public, however, remains low.

“When you compare Cambodian movie stars and athletes, people prefer the stars. I want to see more mediums like TV, radio and newspapers start to focus more on sport,” said Davin.

The country needs to increase the prestige attached to sport, agreed Ly Nary, 42, who for years was Cambodia’s only female marathon runner.

“If Cambodia wants to become known for sports, it needs to have more support or sponsors to train national athletes more professionally,” she said.

After a disadvantaged childhood, at 9 years old she weighed just 22 kilograms.

Nonetheless, she went on to run in marathons in New York City and three times in Paris.

“Some sports are not as popular as others because of less audience, less encouragement, less mental and physical support, less contributions from the relatives and less human resources,” she said.

What the country needs, she continued, is encouragement from the government and also the Cambodian people to make the national athletes feel valued.

“More coaches, equipment and mental encouragement are the key to raising up the sports education system.”

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport could not be reached for comment.

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