THE SUN is rising over the Northbridge School practice court on the outskirts of
Phnom Penh as Chim Phan goes high to spike a ball over the net.
Som Cho leaps high on his good leg to lob the ball over the net
like a one-legged Michael Jordan, calf muscle bulging with the effort. Across
the net, stocky Bun Horn sets up a return, hitting the ball with his one arm.
Horn lost his other arm at the age of 10 when he came upon a bomb in the
Cambodian rice fields during Pot Pot's regime.
These are two of the stars
of Cambodia's first Paralympics volley ball team, a group of 12 players with a
decidedly Cambodian affliction. Eleven of the players are amputees, their limbs
blown off in encounters with some of the millions of land mines remaining from
the dense planting of three decades of war. But they are symbols of success in
the fight against the mines, and they will travel to Sydney, Australia, on
October 11 to play against five other international teams.
"I used to
think I was a bad luck man. Now I am a lucky man," said Phan.
He was a
Cambodian Government soldier when he stumbled on a mine in the forest while
collecting firewood five years ago.
"When I stepped on the mine, my leg
was destroyed," he said. He resented the accident and was "very worried" about
how to support his family. Through an NGO, he learned carpentry and began making
wheelchairs. Now he recruits other land mine victims to come in for help. "I
look for other disabled people and encourage them to come and study and not
despair," he said.
The volleyball players are among the 1,000 or so
Cambodians a year who are still being injured or killed by land mines, despite
more than $100 million spent on mine clearance since 1993.
"We've been at
this eight years," says Archie Law, program manager for the Mines Advisory
Group, "and we'd like to think that in another ten we'll get it under control.
People are trying anything to get clearance rates up, and get the job done
The volleyball players are being held up as a sign of success
for Cambodia's handicapped population. Chris Minko, acting director of the
National Paralympic Committee of Cambodia, has been plastering posters of the
athletes in restaurants around Phnom Penh to raise awareness of the handicapped.
Some of the players say they didn't know themselves that they could play sport
till they tried.
"At first it was very difficult for me to play with one
leg: I always fell down," said Nok Rotha, a 32-year-old player from Battambang
province. He said learning to play sport again has eliminated the discrimination
he used to feel. "Now I consider my life the same as other
Rotha became an amputee fighting on the side of the Khmer
Rouge. "I was only 16. I didn't want to stay alive any more. I had two friends
and I asked them to give me a gun, please, because I wanted to kill myself," he
said. He says his friends carried him for 21 days to a hospital. Now he works
for the Cambodia Disabled Persons Organization.
Heng Tey, the only
non-amputee on the team, said when he was a child people looked at his polio leg
and called him the "swollen leg guy". "Now they dare not call me that; through
sport I can show my ability to all of them," he said. Tey is the only so-called
Class A player, meaning he is the least disabled member of the team.
Your, 38, a moto driver from Kampong Speu, who lost his leg to a mine, said the
game changed his life.
"I used to be so-called disabled and normal people
assumed I could do nothing. Now I can show people that even though I am disabled
I can do what they can do and I dare say I can play volleyball better than
they," he said.
The players leave for Sydney on October 11. The 11th
Para-lympic Games run from October 18 till 29, with 4,000 disabled athletes from
127 countries competing.
What are the Cambodians' chances of winning?
Their coach, Daniel Kopplow, who has been funded by Germany to train the players
in Cambodia and travel with them to the games, is noncommittal. The Cambodian
team has no other team to practice against and has been in training only since
August. The players will get new polypropylene sports legs from the Vietnam
Veterans Rehab Association, but those legs don't compare to the high tech
titanium legs players from the United States will have.
figures: "If they win the first one, anything can happen."
ragtag team lacks in limbs it makes up for in hopeful enthusiasm, said Kopplow.
The players train three hours a day on the court at Northbridge, then return to
open-air sleeping quarters for meals and to rest sore limbs on mats under
mosquito netting at a villa owned by a landmine amputee himself. Battered old
legs lie around the room between their mats, a massage table and a big chart
with play tactics drawn on it.
Kopplow said the players "have got over
what happened to them - they have a perfect attitude; they love to play; they
Cambodia was invited to send a team to the Paralympics
in March when England withdrew. Kopplow said the rules at Sydney favor the
underdogs. Cambodia will play five games regardless of who wins. Their first
game is October 21 against Israel. They will also face the United States,
Germany, Poland, and Slovakia.
As of late September Minko said the
committee had raised about $25,000 in cash contributions to send the team to
Sydney and was still about $9,500 short. The major sponsors are King Sihanouk
and Queen Monineath, MobiTel, Siemens, and Caltex. Veterans International (VI)
is a major sponsor of in-kind contributions. VI has supplied the polypropylene
legs and is sending a prosthetic specialist and a physiotherapist to Sydney with
the team. "We've been keeping the guys in the best equipment we can put on
them," said Larrie Warren at VI.
According to Minko, the volleyball team
is just a start in raising awareness about the handicapped in Cambodia. With its
large disabled population it's not improbable, he said, that the country can
become a regional center for disabled sports development.