Country’s Only World-Class Marathoner Runs for Nation

To Rithya, Cambodia’s sole world-class mar­a­­­thon runner, sits in the Cambodian Athletic Fed­eration office shoulders in, face down, staring at his hands, still grease-stained from his job renting and repairing cyclos out of a shop behind Tuol Sleng museum.

A 37-year-old father of two, he has run more than 28 marathons over the past seven years, holds the Cambodian marathon record, and seems terribly embarrassed about all the fuss just because he can run 42 km in less than three hours and does it over and over again.

“He is our top-ranked marathoner,” says Yem Oddom, director of the federation, beaming with pride. “We have yet to have a runner pass him.”

To Rithya started as a sprinter in 1980, after the end of the Pol Pot regime, at the age of 18. Running was part of the school curriculum. He liked it because he was good at it and good at it because he liked it. In 1992, realizing that age was taking its toll, he switched from sprints that required youthful speed to the endurance-testing marathon.

“After 1992, I was older and my strength was not as good so I switched to marathons,” he says. “My endurance was still good but my speed was not.”

A 1982 photograph of him with his teammates shows a 20-year-old with a face worried and lined beyond his years but a body tiny and underdeveloped, a stark contrast to the muscular, healthy frame that carries him now.

But still, he complains he cannot afford enough food to sustain him through long, hard practices. “Right now there is no financial support,” he says.

“My daily diet is not enough for me to practice more. I have to spend 15,000 riel a day to feed myself when I practice. I do not dare overpractice.”

He currently trains six days a week, running 15 to 20 km ev­ery morning at 4 am through the capital’s dark but not yet traffic-chok­ed streets. In the evenings, he sprints 2 or 3 km around the track at Olympic stadium. He us­ed to train much more, and the re­duction has re­sulted in an increase in his race time.

In 1995, To Rithya set a record for the fast­est mar­a­thon ever run by a Cambodian when he ran a race in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in two hours and 39 minutes. He finished seventh, narrowly missing the $5,000 prize given to the top six finishers. “I was most surprised and proud,” he says. “But in 1995 I practiced three times a day.”

He has yet to repeat the record time and his times are creeping ever closer to three hours. He won the national marathon championship in March in two hours and 58 minutes.

Chhang Piseth, a 25-year-old math professor and half-marathon runner, takes a break working out the federation’s invoices to pull out a certificate that To Rithya was awarded for running the marathon at the World Athletic Championships in Seville, Spain in August. He came in 65th out of a field of 80—the last 15 did not finish—with a time of 2 hours and 59 minutes.

In the 1996 Olympics, he fought 36-degree heat in Atlanta in the US state of Georgia to place 105th out of 124 with a time of 2 hours and 47 minutes, and carried the Cambodian flag during the opening and closing ceremonies.

“It was hot for me,” he said. “But it was awesome to see the world contest and to see good athletes from around the world.”

No one at the Federation seems to be bringing home many trophies. One balances precariously on top of a shelf. A medal hangs on a wall next to a certificate of attendance. Yem Oddom complains that the standard of living for Cambodian athletes is too poor for them to compete.

Money seems to be the first thing that everyone wants to talk about. Chhang Piseth was unable to compete in the half-marathon in Seville because there wasn’t enough money to send two athletes. He is worried about finding money for a visa to compete in an upcoming half-marathon in Vietnam.

To Rithya is not paid anything from the Federation but had his shoes paid for through grants from organizations such as the Asia Amateur Athletic Association and the Inter­national Amateur Athletic Federation. He earns another $20 a month from coaching and ekes out the rest of his living from the cyclo trade.

Besides his own money worries, To Rithya talks about running using terms such as duty and honor. He can, therefore, he must.

“I run the marathon for national honor. I am good at it so it is my duty to try my best and represent the country. It is not for fun.” he says. “I always finish.”

To Rithya’s next race will be the Angkor Wat half-marathon in Siem Reap Dec 5.


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