Cambodian distance runner Hem Bunting (c) celebrates his victory in the 2011 Phnom Penh Half Marathon alongside second placed Neko Hiroshi (r) and Kieng Samorn in third. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/Phnom Penh Post
The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia’s controversial choice of marathon runner for the 2012 Summer Olympics looks set to miss out on a trip to London after the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled him ineligible, NOCC officials revealed earlier today.
Japan-born professional comedian Kuniaki Takizaki, more commonly known by his stage name Neko Hiroshi, had been given the nod by the NOCC to join their delegation as one of five wildcards granted by the International Olympics Committee to participate in London.
However, a fierce media backlash in his homeland had brought the issue of nationality to the IAAF, which in turn spoke with Cambodia’s governing body, the Khmer Amateur Athletics Federation, over the past few weeks to help clarify Neko’s status in the Kingdom.
An Olympic Charter by-law regarding athletes who have never officially represented their country of birth offered the NOCC the opportunity to allow the Japanese man to be part of their 2012 Olympic team providing he obtained Cambodian citizenship at least a year prior to competing.
Neko became a Cambodian national last October, one month before representing the Kingdom in the marathon race at the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia.
He could have seen this one-year period waivered had there been sufficient proof provided to the IAAF that he’d been a resident of Cambodia for a certain period beforehand.
Documents sent by the KAAF indicated Neko had lived here sporadically since 2009.
However, the Japanese celebrity’s bid to race in London looks set to fall short after the IAAF gave an October 19, 2012, date before Neko becomes eligible to run in Cambodian colours at international competitions.
The London Olympics run from July 27 to August 12, with the marathon held traditionally on the last day.
The IAAF were unable to respond to calls and emails at time of publication to confirm the ruling, which had been issued on Monday.
Meanwhile, the NOCC said they were resigned to omitting Neko from their delegation.
“We have to follow the IAAF ruling [on Neko Hiroshi]. He will miss the London Olympics,” NOCC Secretary General Vath Chamroeun told the Post today.
NOCC and IAAF officials were unable to clarify where Neko was currently residing.
The ruling may also jeopardise future contributions towards Cambodian athletics from the organisation Cambodia Dream, a Tokyo-based charity that sponsored Neko's application for Cambodian nationality.
The NOCC received a substantial sum from Cambodia Dream towards the hosting of the 2011 Phnom Half Marathon and are set to have them as main sponsors for this year’s edition slated for June 17.
The Olympic Charter strictly prohibits the entry or participation of a competitor in the Olympic Games conditional on any financial consideration.
Results from last year’s half marathon in the capital provides an interesting subplot to this story, as Neko shared the podium with race winner Hem Bunting and third-place Kieng Samorn.
Both Cambodian distance runners are keen to take Neko’s place in the London-bound squad, although Bunting’s well-documented fall out with the KAAF and NOCC may yet prevent him from joining despite his superior credentials.
Bunting missed out on the chance to become the first Cambodian athlete to officially qualify for an Olympic Games in recently by finishing just over five minutes outside the qualifying time at the Paris marathon on April 15, although he did set a personal best and unofficial Cambodian national record of 2 hours 23 minutes and 28 seconds.
Bunting finished a clear five minutes ahead of Neko in the Phnom Penh Half Marathon last year but was not selected to go to Indonesia for the 2011 SEA Games.
The Stung Treng native represented Cambodia at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, finishing 73rd in a time of 2:33:32, and won a marathon silver at the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand and a bronze at the same event in Vientiane in 2009.
After returning from France, Bunting appears keen to patch up the differences between himself and the authorities in his mission to attend the Olympics this summer.
He told the Post he had filed a document to the KAAF requesting his re-inclusion onto the national team, which has been forwarded to the NOCC and is currently awaiting approval.
“Following my training in Kenya for three months [from January to March this year], I want to show the world that Cambodia has the athletic prowess to join the Olympic Games. I will try my best to get this opportunity,” he said.
A call to KAAF General Secretary Pen Vuthy did not shed any light on who was being groomed as the replacement for Neko, with the official insisting that he was in the province and was not up to speed with the matter.
With assistance from H S Manjunath