Boxing team member Roung Sarath, 21, retrieves his mouthguard during a practice bout.
HE recent announcement by the National Olympic Committee that taekwondo is gaining
rapidly in popularity shouldn't cause too many sleepless nights for the players and
coaches of the two major national sports, soccer and boxing.
That is just as well, as they say they have more urgent concerns. With less than
seven weeks until the South East Asian Games (SEA Games) begin in Malaysia, coaches
and players have spoken out. They are worried that not only have their continuous
financial problems meant a late start to the training regimen, they are also concerned
that the lack of proper practice facilities will hurt their chances.
"I'm very nervous at the moment because no money is flowing in from sports organizations
and sponsors," says soccer coach Joachim Fitkert, banging his fists on a wooden
"We started our training session late because of this financial problem,"
he complains, drawing on his cigarette, espresso in hand. "It's such a shame
that the players have to borrow money from their family and friends just to come
Although a player's daily costs amount to only $5, Fitkert explains that most of
his players come from poor families and cannot even afford such necessities as transportation
"I tell you frankly, most of my players have to work as motor-taxi drivers before
coming to the stadium," he says.
There is clearly a cost to being a professional player. Many are forced to borrow
money from loan sharks who charge interest rates as high as 20 percent a day.
"I borrowed a little at a time but it accumulated to $400 over two months,"
says Ney Sei Koun, a member of the national team.
For Koun, who plays in the No. 14 shirt, soccer is his overriding passion.
"I only want to play soccer until I die," he says proudly. His love for
the sport began when he was five years old. Raised in a poor family, Koun's life
became even harder after his parents divorced.
Eventually his mother told him that she could no longer afford to keep him, so
Koun left home and lived in a temple for the next four years. Since he could not
afford to attend school, Koun turned his free time to soccer.
"Running and kicking a ball makes me feel happy," he says.
Despite the national side's sixth place ranking, Fitkert believes that the Cambodian
team has a solid advantage in at least one respect: his team is the youngest and
strongest of the 20 competing sides.
Although most players from other countries are between 26 and 29 years old, his
players are under 23. The battle for gold, though, will not be easy: competition
is sure to be intense from first ranked Thailand and next favorites Vietnam.
Proud to represent Cambodia in international sport, the Cambodian soccer squad lines up.
Fitkert, who has coached the national side for more than six years, says that his
greatest challenge lies in training his players to be creative, to act independently
and to be responsible on the playing field.
"Every player has to show 100 percent commitment," he says.
The team will get some help at the games: FIFA (the Federation of International Football
Associations) provides accommodation for the 24 players, as well as three meals a
day. In addition each player receives new kit, a pair of sneakers and $40 a month.
Here in Cambodia, though, the problems are even more basic. Fitkert says he needs
access to one main field rather than operating under the current arrangement, which
involves traveling between the Army Stadium and Old Stadium.
"I never know where we will be practicing next," he says, stressing that
for a soccer team, having a regular practice field is half the battle.
The difficulties of the national soccer coach are easily recognized by the coach
of the up-and-coming national taekwondo team. Taekwondo Master Choi Yong-Sok says:
"I'm very frustrated - not with the team but with the lack of the participation
from the Cambodian government."
Choi, who is Korean and a fourth degree black belt master, says that although his
students are highly motivated, they do not receive adequate training equipment, let
alone a decent roof.
"When the rain comes, the tin roof leaks and we are forced to continue our practice
as the rain drops over our heads," he says.
And when it comes to basic equipment: "We don't have enough sparring gloves
to begin with, " says Choi.
Choi came to Cambodia in 1996 with one mission: to re-introduce and upgrade taekwondo.
He is deeply passionate about the sport and says he will not leave Cambodia until
the national team wins a medal in international competition.
Taekwondo was introduced to Cambodia in 1972, when two Korean soldiers involved in
the Vietnam War opened a taekwondo sports club for young men. However, when the Khmer
Rouge came to power in 1975, the soldiers returned to Korea and the building was
In 1990 the Korean government sponsored a revival in the sport. With that country's
backing, mats and sparring equipment were imported and a training building constructed.
Twentyone-year-old black belt student, Buth Vicheth has been training for 11 years
and has been selected three times to represent his country. Despite his small size
- he weighs in at 58 kilograms and is 5'5 feet tall - Vicheth is the best fighter
on the team. He is known to Choi as "Golden Leg" because of his vigorous
"At first I was interested in this sport because it kept me in good shape and
taught me to protect myself," says Vicheth. "But as I continued to practice
I discovered I really enjoyed myself." Although he is yet to win a medal, Vicheth
is hopeful that this time he will bring one home.
The secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee, Meas Sarin, is less optimistic
about the team's chances.
"The members only practice one hour a day," he says, "and it was only
when taekwondo was elected to attend the SEA game that they began to practice six
hours a day. This sport is new to Cambodia and we are at the bottom of the list compared
with other Asian countries."
Sarin adds that although the committee supports the sport, it does not have the money
to provide either proper training equipment or decent facilities.
"When comparing our tae-kwando team with those from other countries, our capacity
is lower because our training tenure is not internationally standardized," he
National taekwondo team members warm up with kicks at the stadium.
Besides, Sarin says, the problem lies not only in a lack of funds - he claims that
students in the sport are disadvantaged by having to learn under instructors who
are themselves not professionally trained.
"No matter how hard the students practice, they will not know how to properly
train themselves," he says, adding that at the last SEA Games two years ago,
the national team came back empty-handed.
Although taekwondo is relatively new in the country, Choi is pleasantly surprised
at how fast it is growing in popularity. At the last count there were more than 20
clubs in Phnom Penh and 30 others across the country.
Cambodian boxing coach Chhom Chhary, a former boxer himself, is confident that the
six boxers on the national team, who weigh in between 48 and 67 kilograms, are stronger
and better prepared than last time.
"I have confidence that we could win," says Chhary. "Two sponsors,
TV5 and a beer company, are providing money for food and a ring for the team to practice
Previously the only support for the team came from the Ministry of Education, Youth
"We cannot depend on the ministry," says the former boxer. "The boxers
receive their $60 salary every three months and sometimes the money is delayed for
However, this month the ministry has paid the players their salary.
Although boxing is popular in Cambodia, the country is ranked last for boxing in
Asia. But Chhom is not about to give up hope.
"There is a 70 to 80 per cent chance that we will win - but not a gold medal,"
Chhary adds that winning medals will depend substantially on the draw.
Twentyone-year-old Roun Sarath, who weighs 51 kilos, has boxed in 40 matches and
won 30 nationally in only three years.
"I never told my parents that I was practicing this sport until they saw me
on television," he says.
"Now after travelling and competing internationally, they are proud to tell
their friends and neighbors that their son is representing Cambodia."
Even if he loses, Sarath says he will not feel defeated.
The athletes' money worries should not be too troublesome while they are at the Games:
all 75 will receive a daily allowance of $20, as well as a monthly allowance of $60
from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.
The national television station, TV5, has offered an even more impressive prize:
as an incentive to encourage teams to return with medals, the station will award
winning teams $25,000 for a gold medal, $12,000 for a silver medal, and $5,000 for
However, the soccer coach has a word of caution for those who might be swayed by
"I hope they are not just playing for money but for national pride too,"
says Fitkert. "If they are not playing from their hearts, they cannot win."