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Paralympics wheelchair racer in limbo

Paralympics wheelchair racer in limbo

1Van Vun and Cambodia will sit out on this year's Paralympic Games to win a medal
Van Vun and Cambodia will sit out on this year's Paralympic Games to win a medal. Photograph: Mike Hodgkinson/Phnom Penh Post

Starting at 5am, Van Vun trains for an hour and a half, powering around Samdech Hun Sen Park in his wheelchair and racing back and forth over the bridge connecting it to Koh Pich.

Van put his hard work into practice last year when he competed at the ASEAN ParaGames in Indonesia. When he arrived at the competition, his opponents looked down on him; they didn’t think a Cambodian racer had the skill or determination to succeed on the international stage, he says.

He proved his doubters wrong when he won two silver medals (for the 100-metre and 200-metre races), beaten to the top of the podium by a Thai competitor who had 10-years experience and a gold medal from the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008.

Achieving glory at Surakarta was an epic journey for Van. Born in Brek Tabrak village in Kandal province 26 years ago, he contracted polio when he was three and has needed a wheelchair ever since.

In 2006 a charity offered him basic courses in electronics, but he was desperate to become an athlete: all he lacked was the necessary equipment. When Chris Minko from the Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled) heard about Van, he provided this specialist equipment and Van’s drive swiftly became obvious.

Despite his commitment and record of success, Cambodia’s brightest hope for a medal at the Paralympic Games in London this summer has been denied the chance to compete due – at the very least – according to Minko, to administrative failures at Cambodia’s National Paralympic Committee.

The International Paralympic Committee confirmed that one reason Van’s wildcard application was denied was because he had not been licensed by the CNPC.

Gavin Spence, communications and media director at the IPC, confirmed the IPC had not received the very basic information from the Cambodian National Paralympic Committee that would have allowed Van to be licensed. “We sent them many reminders, however nothing came back,” he told the Post via email.

Licensing is the responsibility of the Cambodian committee, according to the IPC, and Van says he was asked by the office of its secretary-general, Yi Veasna, for US$200 to cover this cost in April. The money was refunded five days later, he says, adding that he was told without explanation that it was not possible to license him.

The CNPC provided 7Days with conflicting explanations about the licensing dispute. Veasna first said that Van had been licensed, and then referred further questions to Meas Sokchea, an administrator at the committee.

Sokchea – who had earlier referred all questions to Veasna – said, after speaking with Sokchea, that the IPC made the decision to provide only one wild card to Cambodia before it was time to license applications, so no application for Van Vun to be licensed had been submitted.

Minko accuses their committee of derailing Van’s chance to shine on the international stage, saying it has denied Cambodia a chance of a medal because it is plagued with corruption and nepotism.

Temporary solution Minko was instrumental in setting up the Cambodian National Paralympic Committee in 1996, with a view to entering the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The body was established with a temporary structure and after Sydney, it was intended that steps would be taken to constitute it in accordance with the rules and regulations of the IPC, he said.

At its inauguration, Hun Sen stepped into the largely symbolic role of chairman and Yi Veasna was appointed to the influential secretary-general position.

Minko believes a failure of the CNPC to reform and reorganise since 1996 has resulted in Van’s exclusion from London 2012, and questions the processes that lead to athletes’ funding and selection.

“Despite enormous progress, Cambodia can hang its head in shame with regard to the London Games,” he says. “There is no transparency in selection, and it is well beyond time that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen should have called for reforms to the NPC. The NPC is not in compliance with the rules and regulations of the international body.”

“Cambodia needs to understand the power of sport to affect social change,” he says. “Sport can change perceptions; we know that it is an opportunity to create a positive image of disability.”

Minko says that he has raised his concerns with the International Paralympic Committee, but is frustrated it has ignored him.

It’s not the first time athletics has caused controversy this year. Eyebrows were raised in May when a Japanese marathon runner was selected to compete for Cambodia, despite running a slower time than a Cambodian athlete.

For now, Van Vun’s Olympic dreams are over, but he vows not to give up. “I am very disappointed, but I will keep trying. I want to win a gold medal abroad. I have promised this to my family.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Anna Brown at [email protected]
Vincent MacIsaac at [email protected]

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