It rained in Rio as the most controversial but captivating Summer Games in recent memory handed over the baton to Japan during a spectacular closing ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and a small Cambodian contingent headed home with a feeling of pride after having done better than many previous missions.
The last of six Cambodian competitors, Takizaki Kuniaki, more popularly known as owarai comedian Neko Hiroshi in his native Japan, came in second last among the 140 finishers as 15 athletes from a starting list of 155 dropped out of the men’s marathon at various stages of a course with several sharp turns made more challenging by the slippery conditions.
The 39-year-old Hiroshi, a Japanese national who became a Cambodian citizen in 2011, was proud to run for his adopted country, and he displayed the true spirit of participation by battling on at the rear of the field to finish 139th in a time of 2 hours 45 minutes and 55 seconds.
‘A great honour’
The wet conditions and tough course made for some surreal sights as the final athletics event of the Rio Games ran its course.
AFP reported: “Former Olympic silver medallist Meb Keflezighi led the way [in slipping over] when he lost his footing and skidded across the finish line on all fours. Mortified, he stayed where he was and began to do push-ups to loud applause.
“Amid celebrations for the end of the Rio Olympics, few spared a thought for Jordan’s Methkal Abu Drais who finished the marathon behind a Japanese comedian [Hiroshi], a stray dog and an Argentinian running sideways.
“A stray black dog made a lengthy cameo, to further cheers, trotting alongside runners who looked a little wary of the furry intruder.
“Argentine runner Federico Bruno did a cracking impersonation of a wounded crab as he crossed the line sidewards-on in 137th, dragging his cramping leg behind him.”
At the front, Kenyan running machine Eluid Kipchoge, who has now won seven of the just eight marathons he has taken part in, took the gold ahead of Ethiopia’s Lilesa Feyisa and USA’s Rupp Galen as the trio broke away from the tiring bunch with nearly 10 kilometres to run.
Like Nary Ly’s performance in the women’s marathon the previous week, the Cambodian camp once again took comfort in the fact that Neko Hiroshi resolutely hung on to finish the race.
“Finishing a marathon in itself is a great honour and I am happy that both our long distance runners gave their very best.
“Of course, our objective is to do better in every discipline we take part in, but considering the top quality of competition, our athletes have given us a lot of hope for a better future,” said Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.
“Sorn Seavmey’s loss still rankles, but we need to get over it and work harder than ever before to seek our first Olympic medal.
“We need to start our preparations for Tokyo right away and encourage more of our athletes to achieve qualifying marks,” said Chamreoun, who was the first wrestler from Cambodia to compete in an Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
As the sun began to set on the Rio Games, the Cambodian delegation took part in the parade of nations for the last time at the Maracana stadium, with swimmer Hem Thon Vitiny getting the honours as flag-bearer.
While Cambodia’s expectation of a medal soared after Seavmey’s Olympic qualification, her defeat at the hands of Reshmie Oogink brought home the harsh reality of what it takes to win at this elite level.
Cambodia counted as positives the swimmers bettering their personal bests, the marathoners staying the course, wrestler Sotheara giving her best and Seavmey holding out rich promise for the future.
Apart from Cambodia winding down its campaign on an optimistic note, the Southeast Asian region as a whole had been celebrating the Rio Olympics as one of the best for the bloc of 11 nations.
Despite a population of 600 million, which is larger than the European Union’s 510 million, Southeast Asia’s success in Olympics had been marginal to say the least, with gold eluding three of the five most populous countries in the region until London 2012.
But that trend was bucked by Vietnam on the second day of the competition in Rio when Hoang Xuan Vinh won the country’s first gold in the 10m air pistol.
Singapore followed suit with their first gold medal six days later in the pool when the “Kid” conquered the “Legend” as Joseph Schooling beat his childhood hero Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly.
The region has now recorded new highs in total medals and golds, erasing the disappointing memories of London.
Two-thirds of all medals since 1928 have been won by Indonesia and Thailand, and five of the region’s 11 countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Timor-Leste – still have never made it to the podium.
But when it comes to rewarding gold medallists, four Southeast Asian countries are among the top seven offering six-figure payouts – headed by the whopping $952,000 Taiwan gave female weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching.
Singapore ranks second, with Schooling getting $746,000 under the Singapore National Olympics Council program. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are, like Russia and Brazil, rewarding their gold medalists with $250,000.