A fouled footballer writhes on the pitch at Olympic Stadium. The referee approaches and stands dispassionately over him. Outraged teammates appeal to the ref with gesticulating pleas, but their grievances fall on deaf ears.
As real as the foul was that felled the footballer during that recent Saturday game, it could easily be a metaphor for the general state of sport in Cambodia: The hurt player could be Cambodia’s sporting organizations; his frustrated teammates could represent the general public, and the inattentive official acting as referee could embody just that-an inattentive official.
The problem with metaphors though is that people find them pretentious, and when talking about the state of sport in Cambodia it is best to abandon vaguery in favor of blunt, colorless explanations of why sport is struggling at the grassroots level. Even hugely popular sports in Cambodia with low playing costs, such as soccer, are left scrabbling for funds from private sponsors amid pitiful government assistance.
“In terms of facilities, we have very few in comparison to the increasing numbers of players,” said May Tola, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian Football Federation, as he outlined the arid prospects for football players at all levels – amateur and professional.
“In the national teams we don’t even have enough pitches to train on. We only have one pitch [at the Olympic stadium].” According to Mr May Tola, the government provides a monthly stipend for those representing the country at youth and full international level. However, the basic salary of $50 per month, with an extra $5 for food, is scarcely enough for an ordinary person to live on, not to speak of an elite athlete to sustain themselves amid the intense physical demands of professional sport.
In order to supplement this income, the football federation gives each team player between $180 and $250 each month during the final stage of preparation for international tournaments, from its own coffers. This funding derives from sponsors and individual benefactors.
But that may not be enough to create a winning national side.
In the official world football rankings, Cambodia is ranked 175th out of 202 countries, below regional neighbors Laos and Burma.
Mr May Tola is complimentary of the government’s role, but he does admit that more could be done to stimulate development in the sport: “There should be a policy from the ministry to create more facilities, training, and an environment for children to play football. We need to make it better; to encourage children to play football.”
Unfortunately, having relatively impressive facilities at your disposal does not guarantee a pay off in participation or development of athletes and Cambodian volleyball serves as a reminder of this.
In 1964, the completed National Sports Complex, better know as the Olympic Stadium, included an 8,000 capacity volleyball amphitheatre and numerous outdoor courts. Bountiful resources were at hand for the nation’s volleyballers. In more recent times, it would appear that little has been done to exploit the existing infrastructure to develop both the sport and players.
According to Sam Sophean of the Cambodia Volleyball Association, the courts have long been in a state of disrepair and are in dire need of resurfacing, “We have plans to renovate, but there is no money. We must wait until we can afford it.”
As a result, the national side is currently preparing for the Southeast Asian Games on dubious, uneven surfaces that are prone to frequent flooding. Unsurprisingly, Mr Sam Sophean laments the sporadic financial support afforded the organization.
“Our level of volleyball is not at a strong point, so the [National] Olympic Committee has not paid much attention to it,” he said. And the national volleyball side’s fortunes are not much better than the footballers: Cambodia is not listed among the 110 countries in the Federation Internationale de Volleyball website’s world rankings at men’s, women’s, or junior level.
However, countries of such modest stature as Macau, Tonga, and the British Virgin Islands all feature in the rankings.
That said, it is in volleyball that Cambodian sport’s biggest success story dwells. The disabled volleyball side is currently ranked #3 in the world and the Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled) was recently chosen as a global finalist by the Nike Changemakers competition (world’s best sport and development programs).
Christopher Minko, Secretary General of the CNVLD, explained that, while the organization does not receive cash support from the government, it does receive assistance through the provision of the Olympic stadium for sporting events and free assistance from the public authorities for the staging of outdoor public events. Instead of pointing the finger at the government, Minko offers a different take on the diseases ravaging sport in the country: “What’s important to understand is that each national federation receives considerable funding from their respective international federation – The issue is how these funds are used.”
He attributes blame to corruption in the sport federations, citing “the many tiers of officials that are living off the funding from international federation grants.”
Probably more disappointing than the neglect of any other sport in the country is the indifference shown toward a monument of the nation’s heritage and culture: Khmer kickboxing.
Kickboxing may be trumpeted as an icon of Khmer prestige, yet it is still largely left to forage for its own financial scraps. According to Oum Yourann, president of the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Federation, government support is confined to those fighting in international matches. Otherwise, the body is run almost exclusively without government support. The payment of officials, boxers and ring maintenance, all fall at the feet of the boxing federation.
The same pertains at grassroots level, where the government provides little or no assistance to kickboxing clubs or their young athletes.
Mr Oum Yourann expressed his desire for a Ministry to be created which deals specifically with sport, adding that sporting federations are unsure whether the Ministry for Education, Youth and Sport or the National Olympic Committee is responsible for helping them.
The neglect of Khmer kickboxing is even more galling considering the sport’s ability to generate money.
Not only have they globally branded the name “Muay Thai,” which simply means Thai boxing, but visit any of Thailand’s many tourist traps and you cannot help but hear the inescapable blare of the Muay Thai tannoy advertising the evening’s bouts.
The exploitation of Thai boxing for commercial gain benefits boxers, officials, television networks, and tourism in general.
In contrast, very little is done to draw in deep-pocketed tourists to Khmer kickboxing venues, which has blocked the sport’s international exposure and in turn undermines the sport’s profit-making potential.
Nurturing this broad talent base is also Cambodia’s best chance of gaining international honors at Olympic level. Khmer kickboxing could even learn from the experience of Mongolian wrestling, which converted the traditional form of its sport into a judo gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
And Mongolia, with a population of fewer than 3 million people, many of whom are nomadic herders, could hardly be described as more advanced than Cambodia in terms of resources.
Unfortunately, according to Mr Om Yourann, only a small portion of Cambodia’s kickboxers are trained to conform to international rules, or any other cousin discipline of kickboxing for that matter.
“The Federation must push for boxers in order to win medals abroad,” he added.
Understandably, a government with modest resources can be forgiven for paying little heed to sporting glory. Admittedly, sport has no right to be high on a government’s list of priorities, especially in a developing country, but there is something to be said for the importance of sport to the morale and wellbeing of a populace.
Who can quantify the joy Diego Maradona gave to downtrodden Argentineans with his talismanic performances in the 1986 World Cup, or the pride felt by Filipinos as Manny Pacquiao recently scythed down Britain’s Ricky Hatton to remain the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet.
According to Lak Sam Ath, director general of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports’ general department of sports, none of the country’s 27 sport federations are under any institution and must work independently to operate and develop. Furthermore, he added, there is no direct budget for providing sporting equipment in the country’s schools.
These facts might be excusable in a poor country, but when one weighs the lack of funding for sport compared to the support for other sectional interests, it raises a few questions.
According to the 2009 Budget Law figures the government invested $897,000 toward the integration of water source management for dolphin conservation, $155,000 toward preparing a science research magazine, and $500,000 for a cultural center.
For Mr Lak Sam Ath, the explanation is simple: “In Cambodia, everyone is facing a shortage.” As director general of sports, he is certainly well placed to attest to that.