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Cambodia's marathon man gets help to find the track to success

Cambodia's marathon man gets help to find the track to success

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Twenty-three-year-old Hem Bunting does some morning training on Thursday around the running circuit of Olympic Stadium.

Cambodia’s No 1 long-distance runner Hem Bunting is the recipient of financial support and professional advice aiming to help him in his quest to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics

HEM Bunting has been training at the Olympic Stadium for the past five years as a marathon runner and uses the facilities there for hours each day. To many athletes, their workout centre becomes a second home, but for 23 year-old Bunting, it's also his primary residence. He shares quarters with about 30 other athletes in a room inside the stadium. Such is the way of an Olympic hopeful in Cambodia.

Standing 1.67 metres tall and weighing 56 kilograms, he has a runner's physique. But having the ability and drive doesn't automatically guarantee you a good training programme. Without the proper regimen, athletes find themselves in an uphill battle to compete at international competitions. So how does this man from Stung Treng find himself hoping to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London?

As a youngster growing up in the small town of Srey Phor, Hem Bunting stood out from his classmates in all of the running events. He began participating in provincial 5km, 10km and 21km runs about 10 years ago, and kept coming in first. Bunting was so dominant at meets that his school instructors got in touch with the Khmer Amateur Athletic Federation (KAAF) and arranged for him to move to Phnom Penh to train.

In 2003, he came to the capital and moved into the Olympic Stadium, dividing his time between training and school. The KAAF committed to provide him with a 250,000-riel (US$59.50) monthly salary, as well as meals cooked for him at the stadium.

"I couldn't believe people travelled around the world to compete, and that there were events as big as the Olympics," remembered Hem Bunting. Yet it would be only one year before he would travel to Vietnam for his first international meet, where he came ninth in the 10km run.

Since then, the Cambodian has been adding stamps to his passport at a brisk rate, going to meets in Thailand, Indonesia and Japan among other destinations. "Japan has been the best host country so far," he says. "They took me on a tour and really made me feel welcome."

So far, Hem Bunting's best finish has been at the 2007 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, held in Korat, Thailand, where he finished second in the marathon with a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes, 28 seconds, slashing the previous Cambodian best by eight minutes. It was impressive considering he had been running marathons in over three hours just two years previously. An added incentive for athletes to perform well at the SEA Games was a cash reward from the government of Cambodia; US$6,000 for a gold, $4,000 for a silver and $2,000 for a bronze medal.

To qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Hem Bunting would have had to run a marathon in a time of 2h:20m:00sec. However, in the spirit of the games, top athletes of a country in a sport are invited to participate, even when failing to make the cut. Thus last year, Hem Bunting was joined by three other Cambodian athletes to travel in China, where he finished 73rd out of 95 with a time of 2h33:32.

"If he's been able to do this with no advantages, think about how good he could be with a little help," says Rasmey Sokmongkol, Hem Bunting's benefactor since early this year.

The general manager of East West Visa Services, who goes by Raz, is hoping to get the runner competitive in time for the SEA Games, which take place in Vientiane, Laos, this December. The eventual goal is to qualify for and make a mark at the 2012 Olympics in London.

According to Raz, there has never been a Cambodian athlete to actually qualify for the Olympics, and he believes Hem Bunting has what it takes to be the first. Raz is also getting the Cambodian to run in the Boston, Sydney and London marathons as a lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.

"At this point, he has to be provided with things as seemingly simple as a proper diet," said Raz. "Trying to mix in work that barely pays for the necessities and training, obviously his running times will suffer for it. Shaving minutes off of a marathon time takes an increase in stamina that can only come from a stronger body."

Hem Bunting has got this far on a daily diet of breakfast noodles, five cups of rice and 150 grams of chicken; not exactly a Lance Armstrong diet. Previously, his daily caloric intake barely reached 2,000, with a training athlete his size recommended to get around 2,700.

Raz grew up in Australia and recalls the sensation caused by the Australian Steven Bradbury when he won the gold in the 1,000-meter speed skating event during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. "Steven Bradbury is still a celebrity there. It's a huge thing for a country that doesn't usually rank in the field to win a gold medal," asserted Raz, who was Bradbury's managing agent.

Raz already has fellow Australian-Cambodian Richard Chin joining Hem Bunting's cause by donating a year's membership to his health centre, AusFit, which is located atop the Skyline Apartments in Boeung Keng Kang. As a certified nutritionist, Chin will also help advise the athlete on how to tailor his diet for training and racing.

This month, Hem Bunting will be heading to Europe for the first time, competing in the 12th Athletics World Championships in Berlin on August 15-23. As athletics' biggest competition of the year, with over 200 countries participating, Hem Bunting is happy for the extra support he's getting now.

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