Olympic athletes call for more local support
Distance runner Hem Bunting, who will compete in the 5,000m and marathon events at the Beijing Olympics this August, still trains in an old pair of track shoes despite having $3,000 owed to him for medals he won at last year’s SEA Games.
Each morning, Hem Bunting puts on his old running shoes and hits the Olympic Stadium jogging track. But unlike others exercising at the Phnom Penh stadium, 25-year-old Bunting isn’t running for health or good looks; he’s preparing to take on the world’s best distance runners at this year’s Olympic Games.
“He’s the number one marathon runner in Cambodia but he still trains in old shoes,” Chea Chandara, Bunting’s friend and training partner, said with a laugh as the pair tightened their laces for an early morning training session.
Bunting is one of four Cambodians bound for Beijing this August. Selected by the Olympic Committee, the team consists of two swimmers, a female sprint runner and Bunting, who will compete in the men’s marathon and 5,000 meters.
The team owes its presence at the Olympics to regulations allowing some of the world’s least developed nations to enter a man and woman in two sports categories without having to qualify.
The goodwill gesture is unlikely to translate into medals for Cambodia’s athletes, however, as sports facilities and support here remain well behind even most of Cambodia’s regional competitors – let alone those of the world’s sporting powerhouses who will be among the field of 205 countries in Beijing this August.
Bunting said athletics also struggled due to limited public interest in the face of more popular sports like football and boxing.
“Cambodians have little understanding of athletics. They are only interested in sports they can bet on,” Bunting said, adding that the Olympic squad desperately needs a major sponsor to supply equipment and training grounds.
“Right now it’s the rainy season, but we have nowhere to train when it rains,” he said.
The government usually provides 15,000 riels ($3.75) a day per athlete in the lead-up to an international sporting event, though this is not enough to cover living costs and the dietary needs of a top-performing athlete.
For Bunting, more substantial help could soon be at hand. The Cambodian Olympic Committee is currently finalizing an agreement with South Korea that would allow him to train in Seoul for two months prior to the Olympics.
Bunting says he is grateful for the experience but holds no illusions as to his chances at the Games.
“Of course I am very excited to have the chance to compete in the Olympics but I don’t hope to win a medal,” he said.
Across the stadium, Cambodia’s swimming hopefuls – 18-year-old Hem Thon Ponloeu and Hem Thon Vitiny, who is just 14 – vie for space in the crowded Olympic pool.
Hem Thon, secretary general of the Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation, said he has been training the pair for two years in preparation for the Games and is happy with their progress.
However, he pointed out that the two young Khmers will be up against swimmers from 169 countries, most of whom have been training longer and harder with access to private training facilities.
The swimmers can’t expect a five-star stay in the Chinese capital either, with the team getting just $20 a day from the government for its ten-day stint in Beijing.
For Bunting, though, the impact support for sports could have on future generations of athletes is just as important as his own monetary rewards.
“There are now only six of us in the international athletics team. When we retire, there is no one to replace us,” said Bunting, who is in his last year of a physical education teaching degree.
“That’s why I want to encourage young ones to get involved. If they don’t, once we are gone, the Cambodian athletics team will die.”
Money for medals ... probably
Should Cambodia beat the odds and lift a medal at the Beijing Olympics in August, the medal holder will receive a cash bonus of $3,000, $2,000 or $1,000 depending on whether they take home a gold, silver or bronze.
The offer has been tarnished, however, by the late payout for podium finishers at last year’s Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Thailand, who continue to wait for their prize money.
Bun Sok, secretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, said the sub-decree needed to pay the athletes was not approved until March this year.
Taken by surprise by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s announcement of the incentive money, the ministry had not prepared for the payout in advance.
It was now trying to get funding transferred from the Ministry of Economy and Finance “as soon as possible,” Sok said.
“We don’t want the athletes to be disappointed,” he added. “We want to motivate them to win. That is why Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the reward.”