AT the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta later this month,
a small but proud Cambodian national team will join a procession of athletes from
197 countries, marking the end of the nation's 24-year absence from the world's largest
Five Cambodians will take part in swimming, wrestling and track and field events
at the 100th Anniversary Games.
Although none are expected to win medals, the team sees their presence in Atlanta
as a major step in the development of Cambodian athletics.
"The first thing is to improve the national performance," First Prime Minister
Prince Norodom Ranariddh said after meeting with the team last week.
"To earn some medals we will wait [a long time]. So I think we have to go out,
participate and get experience. Without participation we will never get any experience."
Diamil Faye, administrator for the national team, said that although the athletes'
goals are modest, To Rithya, 28, could receive international attention when he competes
in the marathon on the last day of the games.
Rithya's career-best marathon came at the 1995 Southeast Asian Games in Thailand,
where he finished in 2 hours 34 minutes. The time is a little slow compared to the
world's best long-distance runners, but determination and a little help from the
Cambodia-like heat in Atlanta could contribute to a respectable result.
"If you compare his performance from two years ago, he's really doing quite
well," Faye said. "To Rithya has the best chance..., if it is hot, some
people will suffer more than he will suffer."
Although the heat should not be a factor for swimmers Hem Lumphat and Hem Raksmey,
the story of the siblings and their father Hem Thon symbolize the past, present and
future of the Cambodian Olympic effort.
Hem Thon swam in the 1959 and 1961 Southeast Asian Peninsula Games, but was forced
out of international competition as political turmoil and war engulfed Cambodia.
Now he is living his dream of competing in the Olympics by coaching his children
"I am happy because there are two objectives being met by going to the Olympics,"
"One is to save the swimming tradition of Cambodia. Since 1975, competitive
swimming has been non-exisistant here. [And also] I have high hopes that my son will
be inspired to improve in regional and international competition."
At the age of 19, Lumphat is in the prime of his competitive career. Because he is
still catching up to his peers' conditioning, his father did not think Lumphat would
be able to qualify for an international event until the 1999 Southeast Asia Games
But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) asked Cambodia to send a male and female
swimmer to the Games.
Because both Lumphat and Raksmey hold national records in their respective events,
they were the obvious choices to go.
Lumphat will swim in the men's 100m breast stroke and the 200m individual medley,
and Raksmey will enter the women's 100m breast stroke and 50m freestyle.
The future of the Cambodian Olympic team can be seen in the face of 14-year-old Raksmey.
Although swimming in Atlanta will be a phenominal leap in compition for her, Raksmey
is thrilled just because she will be leaving her homeland for the first time.
"I am proud to be one of the first two Cambodian women to compete in the Olympics,"
she said. "I don't think I can win, but I am happy to participate."
When asked to predict what Atlanta and the United States would be like, she said
she only knew it would be much bigger than Phnom Penh. The prospect of meeting the
best swimmers in the world only mildly interested the girl when compared to the true
task at hand.
"I don't know who the top swimmers are exactly," she said. "But if
given the choice between meeting them and competing against them, I would want to
compete and do my best."
Although her best will probably not earn her a place on the podium this time, Raksmey
is sure to be at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney to give it another go.
Rounding out the Cambodian team are freestyle wrestler Vath Chamroeun and sprinter
Chamroeun, 23, who has previously trained with coaches from Russia and North Korea,
will wrestle in the 62kg or 57kg weight class. Chanthan, 22, faces perhaps the highest-profile
competition in the women's 100m. Her best time is 14.90 seconds, about four seconds
off the pace of top female sprinters.
Proper training and nutrition have been major obstacles for the team when facing
international competition. Funding for an Olympic effort is hard to come by in a
country where many basic human needs still go unfulfilled, but the athletic budget
recently received a $1,500 boost from Prince Ranariddh. The IOC also is providing
a considerable amount of financial support to the team.
Lack of training and stiff competition were not the chief concerns among the athletes
as they prepared to leave for the United States. Faye said the Olympians - especially
those with events early in the games - are most worried about adjusting to exotic
southern US cuisine. They already are varying their rice-based diet with the Western
food available in Phnom Penh, but the true intestinal test will come in Atlanta.
Cambodia's previous best Olympic result came at the 1964 games in Tokyo when Tan
Thoi finished 22nd in the 1,000 m cycling event. Cambodia also competed at the 1956
Stockholm games and the1972 games in Munich before war flung the nation into chaos.
Ranariddh hailed the return of Cambodia to the Olympics as an indicator of the country's
move to rejoin the international community. He said he hoped the entire country,
and especially politicians, will learn from the Olympic team's experience.
"[The athletes] will learn step-by-step about fair play. Sometimes the leadership
of Cambodia - our politicians - don't know fair play," the Prince said.
"We will be very proud to see the Cambodian flag among the 197 [countries represented
at the games], and after over 20 years of humiliation, now we are proud to be back
with dignity and determination in conformity with the Olympic spirit."