Nok Rotha, the first Cambodian amputee to complete a full marathon, returned home last week to ecstatic family members and disability activists claiming his achievement as one more step to eliminating the discrimination they face.
“I’m very happy,” said Keo Sambo, Nok Rotha’s wife and community education assistant with the Cambodian Disabled People Organization, while waiting to head out to Pochentong airport with a bag of jasmine necklaces and their 4-year-old daughter, Rotha Sopary.
Nok Rotha, a 32-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier who lost his left leg below the knee to a land mine, completed the New Zealand Millennium Marathon on Jan 1 in 6:04:58, second among disabled non-wheelchair competitors.
Activists called his achievement a significant step. “Negative attitudes are still so high and there is a lot of discrimination,” said Yi Veasna, executive director of the National Center of Disabled People. “Sport is so important to changing such attitudes….When New Zealand called, my tears dropped. I didn’t believe that our man could do a marathon.”
Arriving Thursday afternoon looking healthy and hearty, Nok Rotha occasionally pulled his medal out from under the pile of jasmine encircling his neck to show it off.
“When I won this, I cried,” he said at a press conference.
Nok Rotha went to New Zealand with a $3,000 prosthetic designed for short distances donated by the US manufacturer Flex-foot.
“He only trained for the 10 km [race],” said Chris Minko, adviser to the National Paraolympic Committee of Cambodia.
“We kept joking that he’d do a half-marathon. It’s quite amazing. The guy turns around and does a full marathon.” A marathon is 42 km.
Although the prosthetic was not designed to complete a marathon, Nok Rotha said that it was his healthy right leg that gave him the most trouble.
“I had pain in my legs and got slower and slower,” he said. He ran the first half of the race in two hours but had to switch to a combination of running and walking to finish the second half of the race in the next four hours.
Nok Rotha previously had won two bronze medals in much shorter races at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled in 1998.
Nok Rotha was accompanied by Nov Samnang, a 33-year-old former Funcinpec soldier disabled in combat in 1989, who came in sixth out of field of nine in the wheelchair marathon with a time of 3:03:34.
Their return to Cambodia was marred, however, by disappointment over the perceived lack of government representation. Prak Chantha, secretary of state for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor said an adviser to the ministry had attended the athletes’ return but did not make himself known. She added that she was sorry about the mix-up but said the ministry was proud of the athletes and noted it supported the athletes financially with a $300 grant. (Additional reporting by Saing Soethrith)