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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Japanese comic gears up for Rio with victory in city half marathon

Japan-born Neko Hiroshi, 38, prepares to cross the finish line in the Phnom Penh Half Marathon yesterday. As he will represent Cambodia in the Olympic Games in Rio, the race gave him an ideal opportunity to sharpen up.
Japan-born Neko Hiroshi, 38, prepares to cross the finish line in the Phnom Penh Half Marathon yesterday. As he will represent Cambodia in the Olympic Games in Rio, the race gave him an ideal opportunity to sharpen up. Sreng Meng Srun

Japanese comic gears up for Rio with victory in city half marathon

Rio Olympics-bound Neko Hiroshi led a Cambodian one-two in the sixth Phnom Penh International Half Marathon charity race yesterday. Britain’s Jill Hamill took the women’s honours at the expense of last year’s winner Veronique Messina.

The 122nd Olympic Day charity run, which supports the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals and other benevolent causes, also marks the birthday of Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk and World Environment Day.

A flood of entries the day before the event took the participation numbers to an all-time high of just over 5,000 from 35 countries. This was a 20 per cent rise over last year’s figures with both the half marathon and the supporting 10km event sharing the bulk of that increase.

“The entries far exceeded our expectations this year. We were delighted to see so many institutions and groups taking part in big numbers. We hope this trend continues so that we can introduce a full marathon in the next couple of years,” said Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.

“Fields grew considerably bigger in the 10km event and the great significance of this for us is the increase in the number of Cambodian runners,” Chamroeun, who is also the secretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism, told the Post yesterday.

“We expect them to step up to the half marathons in the next few years so that a healthy progression of long distance runners can be maintained,” Chamroeun noted.

Born Kuniaki Takizaki in Japan, the 38-year old comedian is better known in athletics circles as Neko Hiroshi since he acquired his Cambodian citizenship in 2011. A victory in the national trials in Kep early last month earned him a Universality Placement for the men’s marathon in the Olympic Games in Rio.

The Phnom Penh half marathon presented him with an ideal opportunity to sharpen up his preparations.

Abundant stamina

At 1.45 metres tall and weighing around 100 pounds, Hiroshi belies his build with his abundant stamina.

That’s what took him to a comfortable victory in 1 hour 15 minutes and 25 seconds yesterday, nearly one minute ahead of fellow Cambodian Ma Viro with Japan’s Tsubasa Nakamura a distant third.

Though the time was much slower than some of the previous winners, Hiroshi said after the race that he was happy with the way he handled the trip and that he would feel more comfortable over the extended 42km run.

The women’s event saw Jill Hamill outpace the rest of the pack in a smart time of 1:30.59. The 2015 winner Veronique Messina, a French teacher in Phnom Penh, followed home in 1:36.34. Caroline Girard of France checked in almost 15 minutes slower in third place.

Interestingly, Hamill was the winner of the inaugural edition of the race, which was mired in controversy as two groups of runners took two different routes, plunging the outcome of the 2011 race in a state of utter confusion.

Amid claims and counter-claims, race organisers eventually declared Hamill the winner, crediting her with a time of 1:39.39.

Clementini Tanguide of France was awarded the runner-up spot, with Robin Martez of the United States claiming third.The official result was fiercely contested by another group of women led by Cambodia’s Ly Nary and Japan’s Tomoko Yamada.

Special entry this year

The duo insisted that they had finished one-two respectively, although the organisers dismissed their claims on the grounds that they, along with several others, had taken the wrong route.

Incidentally, Nary has been nominated by the NOCC to represent Cambodia in the women’s marathon at the Rio Olympics in August.Over the years, Kieng Samorn has established a firm hold on the men’s 10km event winning it muliple times.

The 33-year-old Cambodian national team member had to bring out his best at a shade over 38 minutes to stave off a strong bid by fellow countryman Phan Sopheak, who is nine years younger.

Kan Thoeum took third place nearly 90 seconds off the leading pair.The 10km field had a special entry this year.

In the line up was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, a lieutenant general in the Armed Forces. He was among the also rans but he seemingly enjoyed the fun and thrill of participation.

Cambodia’s Heng Mei Chou won the women’s 10km run in 48min and 17 seconds, well ahead of Jenny Alexender of Great Britain (52.57) and Luca Vira of Germany (57.54).

A predominantly young but large crowd turned out for the 3km fun run with Chhun Bunthon and Phal Rotana winning the men’s and women’s divisions respectively.

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