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Neko Hiroshi (right) receives his award from Tourism Minister Thong Khon after winning the 2014 Angkor Empire Marathon in Siem Reap
Neko Hiroshi (right) receives his award from Tourism Minister Thong Khon after winning the 2014 Angkor Empire Marathon in Siem Reap yesterday. Yeun Ponlok

Neko Hiroshi runs away with Angkor marathon

Japan’s Neko Hiroshi, a well-known comedian in his homeland who became a naturalised Cambodian citizen three years ago, won for his adopted country the inaugural Angkor Empire Marathon in Siem Reap yesterday.

The distinction of scoring a historic first in the women’s event went to France’s Veronique Messina, who recorded her own maiden success over 42km after notable half marathon triumphs in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukvile this year.

As the world’s fourth most popular and Asia’s second most visited tourist destination, the Angkor Wat temple complex provided a perfect backdrop for the launch of Cambodia’s first full marathon, which was nearly three years in the making.

Adding to the conviviality of the occasion was Hiroshi delivering the master stroke as a Cambodian ahead of Japan’s Ba Gan in a leisurely time of two hours, 45 minutes and 28 seconds.

“There was no pace at all. I had to generate my own and the timing was quite slow. But I am happy. It gives me great confidence going to the Asian Games in Incheon,” Hiroshi told the Post after passing the finish line to a grand ovation.

As an Owarai comedian, Neko uses his short stature – 1.45m height and 46kg weight – and his cat persona in his acts, but it is his passion for long distance running that endeared him to Cambodia.

Controversy surrounded his inclusion in Cambodia’s London-bound Olympic squad in 2012 after he was granted citizenship but the international governing body (IAAF) ruled that he had not met the one-year eligibility criteria.

Interestingly another TV comic, Yann Lefond of France who performs in Cambodian, shared the podium with Hiroshi yesterday after finishing third.

For Messina, who teaches French in Phnom Penh, long distance running is more of a hobby.

“I had planned to run in a marathon in China but I couldn’t make it. I have run in events longer than the 42km before but those are cross country,” Messina, who clocked 3 hours 36 minutes and eight seconds, told the Post.

China’s Wai Fong Cham came second, checking in nearly seven minutes behind the winner, with Marj Kauri of Finland in third spot.

The supporting men’s and women’s half marathons were won by runners from Europe.

Dutchman Marjin Vander Wardt won the men’s 21km event with a timing of 1:37.37 ahead of two French runners, Simon Lorelli and Joss Vasquez.

Denmark’s Camilla Munch Neilson took the honours in the women’s half marathon, clocking a winning time of 1:50.58 with China’s Shumei Jia and Germany’s Petra Diener filling up the Podium.

There was no opposition worth naming for Cambodia’s Kieng Samorn in the men’s 10km event. His 37.37 spin saw him to an easy win over compatriots Kom Seyha and Horn Panha.

Sarah Hopkins of Great Britain won the women’s 10km run in 54.30, with Hilary Acer of the United States in second place and Renee Hulsmann of Canada finishing third.

As many as 2,700 runners took part in the various events making it another major charity run in the country’s calendar.

“I was very happy with the turnout. It was indeed a historic beginning for Cambodia. We now join nearly 100 countries staging the full marathon,” National Olympic Committee of Cambodia President and Tourism Minister Thong Khon told the Post.

“We will continue with this calendar. The full marathon for the low season in August and the half marathon during the high season in December,” he added.

When asked about about the prospects of staging full marathons in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, the Minister said: “We will make a study of this.”

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