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Marathon champ in battle against AIDS

Marathon champ in battle against AIDS

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Marathon runner To Rithya, 43, is one of Cambodia's most famous athletes. He took part in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic marathons and carried the national flag at the opening ceremony of both games.

T

ENS of thousands of people were on their feet cheering as To Rithya, one of Cambodia's

most famous athletes, entered the Olympic Stadium in Sydney 2000.

Exhausted and dehydrated, he battled to complete the final 400 metres of the 26 mile

Olympic Marathon.

It didn't matter that his muscles were screaming with pain and his lungs were on

fire, or even that he was the 80th of 81 runners completing the race.

What mattered was that far away the 11 million Cambodians he represented were willing

him on towards the finishing line.

Giving every last drop of energy to the end, Rithya collapsed from exhaustion and

dehydration as he crossed the line.

He may not have picked up a medal, but the whole of Cambodia could be proud at this

39-year-old runner giving his all to finish in a time of three hours and three minutes.

"The finish of the Olympic Marathon is always inside the stadium, and you have

to run a lap of the track, four hundred meters," he said.

"I was so, so tired but when I entered the stadium the crowd started cheering

me and shouting for Cambodia. That gave me strength, although I had trouble running

in a straight line.

"I had a look at the marathon course on my first day in Sydney and it was very

hilly, I felt I wouldn't be able to get to the end of the road, but then I reminded

myself I was representing the whole of Cambodia and decided I would finish the race."

Sydney was Rithya's second Olympics: he also competed in the 1996 Atlanta games which

heralded Cambodia's return to the international stage after an absence of more than

two decades.

He had the honour of carrying the national flag, leading the team into Olympic Stadium

at the opening ceremony of both events.

He said: "Atlanta and Sydney were both so different to Cambodia, but I preferred

the Atlanta games because the weather was hot like at home.

"The food was very different too. When I first saw western food I thought there

would be a lot of vitamins in to support me. But it didn't taste very good, not as

good as Khmer food."

And now he is taking part in a new battle, using his status to warn young Khmers

of the dangers of AIDS and HIV in a UNESCO-backed campaign.

Rithya can be seen appearing nightly in television commercials along with other sports

stars.

"I am upset Cambodia has such a high rate of HIV/AIDS because it hurts so many

Cambodians," he said. "I wanted to take part in the campaign to spread

the message, that's what's important."

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