On the return flight from Beijing Monday night, Olympic marathon runner Hem Bunting went over and over the prior day’s race in his head, trying to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.
Despite the inferior quality of the track at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium and his lack of proper running shoes for most of his two-month training period, the 24-year-old said he had put in hard work and expected to have had a better race.
Hem Bunting, who carried the Cambodian flag in both the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies, was placed 73rd among finishers, or fourth from last, in the marathon event Sunday morning in Beijing. His time, 2:33:32, was about seven and a half minutes slower than his personal best of 2:26:00.
The lean runner shook his head Tuesday morning, remembering again his disappointment.
“I am not so happy because I did not break my own record,” he said, sitting on the edge of his bed in the modest living quarters he shares with around 35 other athletes at Olympic Stadium.
As a member of the national team, Hem Bunting said he receives room, board and $50 per month.
“I was very excited because it was my first time in the Olympics…. I ran the first 37 km too fast, and then my leg muscles started hurting. So, I had to reduce my speed for the rest of the race,” he said.
Overall, he said, the Beijing Games were well-organized and well-executed, though he felt the marathon course had too many curves, which put unnecessary strain on runners’ muscles.
Regardless, the 2008 games are now in the past and Hem Bunting said he is trying to move forward. For the moment, he plans to seek solace in the foods he had been missing while abroad, like prahok and cow intestines, though he doesn’t plan to take it easy for long.
The Siem Reap half marathon is coming up in December and then there are the SEA Games in Laos in 2009. Dreams of the 2012 Olympics in London aren’t far from view either, he said.
There was much discussion prior to the Olympics about high pollution levels in Beijing, and the potentially disastrous effect they could have on the health of athletes, especially those competing in high-exertion events like the marathon and cycling.
World record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia pulled out of the marathon prior to competition due to air quality concerns, and 19 runners dropped out in the middle of Sunday’s race. But Hem Bunting said the pollution didn’t bring him down.
“It is similar to our weather just with more fog. For me, it was normal. I’m used to it because I run behind cars here,” he said.
The lack of quality training conditions may have allowed Hem Bunting an opportunity to become accustomed to pollution, but in just about every other respect, the shortage of resources in Cambodia put the country’s four Olympians at a disadvantage.
Hem Bunting noticed the posses of people-coaches, doctors and masseurs-who accompanied athletes from other countries, and 19-year-old Olympic veteran Sou Titlinda complained about the Olympic Stadium’s running track, which is made of gravel and dirt instead of the more modern and more forgiving rubber found on tracks elsewhere.
The relative disadvantage of Cambodian athletes aside, each of the four Olympians was striving to beat his or her personal best-a goal accomplished by the other three.
Sou Titlinda broke her personal record for the 100-meter track event, but said Tuesday afternoon that the inferior status of sports in Cambodia prevents her from taking her accomplishment, or the sport, too seriously.
She ran 12.98 seconds, which placed her 70th out of 85 but was better than her time of 13.47 seconds at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
“I was very excited when I saw my new record on the screen,” she said.
“But I cannot focus on running because running isn’t stable. When my energy becomes weaker, my running ability will go down too. I need to find some work that is certain for the future.”
She said she receives $30 a month as a national athlete, but is simultaneously pursuing a banking degree at Pannasastra University and, for three months prior to the Olympics, had been juggling her studies with two-hour daily training sessions.
“I cannot take [running] as a career like in other countries because when I finish with this sport, I am going to have no job,” she said.
She said she took pride in representing Cambodia on the international stage, however, and enjoyed raising her country’s profile.
“Some people said they didn’t know about Cambodia. Now more people know about us,” she said. “I want them to know that even though Cambodia has bad athletes, they can still send them to the Olympics,” she added.
Swimmer Hem Thon Ponloeu, 18, achieved a new personal best in the 50-meter freestyle event held Aug 14. His time was 27.39 seconds, which placed him 79th out of 97 competing countries.
“I am happy because I beat 18 countries,” he said, adding that he is already looking toward the next Olympics in 2012.
“Now, I am prepared to do continuous training. I want to go to London. It is in four years and it will be up to my capability then,” he said.
Hem Thon Ponloeu’s niece, 16-year-old Hem Thon Vitiny, also swam her personal best (31.14 seconds) in the 50-meter freestyle.
But she said it was difficult to say whether she had more fun breaking her record or visiting the Great Wall of China, which she did on her downtime with fellow Olympians Hem Thon Ponloeu and Sou Titlinda.
“I enjoyed them equally,” she said. “Beijing was beautiful.”