Final Preparations

Catching up with Cambodia’s track and field Olympians as they get set for London

The early morning rain has soaked the gravel track at Phnom Penh’s Olympic stadium, so Kieng Samorn and Chan Seyha, the runners who will represent Cambodia at this month’s Olympic Games in London, have had to break from their usual training routines.

The conditions on Wednesday meant that in lieu of a proper work out, Samorn, who has been selected to run the 800 meters, has joined a group of middle-aged woman on the top tier of the stadium for an Apsara-inspired aerobics class being carried out to heavily amplified 1960s Cambodian rock.

“He needs to relieve his tight muscles,” said his coach Phay Sok, who is down at field level working with an amateur discus thrower who will be competing in the Mahachon, Cambodia’s national amateur athletics competition, in September.

Samorn’s training partners, Thai Sokun, a rail-thin 38-year-old who was sporting a cartoonish afro wig over his shoulder-length, dyed blonde hair, and Cheng Chandara, 29, who calls himself “Mr. Slow Slow,” have followed Samorn’s lead and were idly chatting as their Olympic-bound partner limbered up.

On the opposite side of the stadium, on a ramp beside the indoor arena complex, Seyha, a 200 meter runner, is performing sprints with training partner Kang Thoeurn, a male classmate of hers at the Human Resources University who is also training for the Mahachon.

In their final sprint up the ramp, he beats her, as he always does, but her final effort is her fastest of the day and coach Chey Kimsan says he is happy with the days’ workout. Though his fitness has deteriorated significantly in recent decades, Mr. Kimsan was himself a fine athlete in the 1960s, bringing home a silver and gold medal in the decathlon for Cambodia in successive Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games).

During the workout, he offered a critique of Seyha’s technique that conveyed an expertise learned from decades on the track and a year in the late 1980s training as a coach in Germany. But he remained seated in the shade throughout the morning and once training was finished, he hopped on his motorcycle, lit up a cigarette, and was off.

Seyha and Thorn cooled down with a light jog, bought a couple bottles of sweetened lemon iced tea, took off their shoes, and caught their breath in the shade of the stadium.

Along with Samorn and Seyha in the track and field events, Cambodia will be represented in London by freestyle swimmers Hem Thon Ponleu and Hem Thon Vitiniy, who competed in the 2008 Games in Beijing; Sorn Davin, a silver medalist in taekwondo at the 2011 SEA games and Khom Ratanakmony, a silver medalist in judo at the 2011 SEA games.

At 7 a.m. on Thursday the track had dried up at Olympic Stadium. The arena was already teeming with the usual crowd of runners, walkers, aerobics instructors and their pupils. Under the bleachers on the east side of the stadium, a mass of half-naked young men have assembled for a daily weigh-in for Cambodia’s annual national boxing tournament, which runs through most of July.

On the soccer pitch, the 20 some members of the national football team have begun warming up for their practice. Seyha and Samorn, who fly to London on Sunday, are back on the track, and though they occasionally have to field an errant soccer ball or dodge boxers trying to jog off their water weight before weigh-in, the workout is more in line with what one might expect of Olympians.

Both Samorn and Seyha stand out amongst their peers on Team Cambodia. Seyha is 1.67 meters tall with broad shoulders, muscular legs and a long, powerful stride. It is little wonder that she was spotted at the age of 13 as a potential star, invited by her long-time coach Nhem Sitha to move from Kandal to live with he and his wife and train in Phnom Penh.

At the age of 19, she makes most of her teammates, who are only a year or two younger, look like little boys and girls. Samorn on the other hand, at 1.7 meters tall and 63 kg, looks like another species. In the sea of rag-tag runners, undersized soccer players, and rough-and-tumble boxers, Samorn, shirtless, with the sun reflecting off his chiseled back as he sprints around the track, looks like an Olympian.

The fact that he wouldn’t be one if it was not for a falling out between the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and the country’s best male runner, marathoner Hem Bunting, over a decision to send Japan-born professional comedian and amateur marathoner Kuniaki Takizaki to the Olympics, is not lost on Samorn.

“I know that I am not qualified for the Olympic Games. However, of course, I am considered a national athlete so I need to perform with dignity, discipline and a sense of national pride,” he said.

(In the end Mr. Takizaki was not sent to the Olympics as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that he was ineligible to run for Cambodia.)

Although Samorn’s personal best time of 1 minute and 53.17 seconds at the 2011 SEA games in Jakarta is well off the gold-medal winning time of 1 minute and 44.65 seconds posted by Kenya’s Wilfred Bungei in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Samorn, who grew up in Kandal province running five kilometers to school each day, seems a more appropriate choice than Mr. Takizaki, who achieved minor fame in Japan by impersonating a cat.

The London games will be Seyha’s second foray into international competition, the first being in 2011 at the World Championships in Athletics in South Korea. And apart from her two-week training course in China with Samorn it will also only be her second time competing on a rubberized surface.

In her work outs at Olympic stadium, Seyha does not even use starting blocks, and the gravel surface slides out from under her feet with each step. In these conditions, her personal best in the 200 meters is 26.34 seconds, four and a half seconds slower than Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown’s winning time in Beijing of 21.74 seconds.

“We actually have no qualification to join but at least we are from Cambodia and going to the Games.” (NEED TO ATTRIBUTE THIS)

It is thanks to the IAAF’s wildcard entry system designed to encourage athletes in developing countries that Seyha and Samorn will be heading to London.

And the fact that neither of them seem to be peaking in the weeks leading up to the Olympics is of little concern to the athletes or their coaches.

In the last leg of his workout Thursday, which included a 400 and 600-meter dash and concluded with a full 800-meter run, Samorn got out to a good start, clocking a 1:01 split at 400 meters. During the following lap around the track, however, Samorn slowed significantly, finishing his second 400 meters in 1:12 for a total time of 2 minutes and 13 seconds, a full 20 seconds off his personal best. “So tired,” he said, as he walked around the track to cool down.

For their final 150-meter run of the workout, Seyha lined up with Thoeurn and waited for the starting whistle from coach Chey Kimsan. She finished in 20.76 seconds, the equivalent of a 27.68 second 200-meter time. “Not good but not bad,” said Mr. Kimsan. “Last month, she was running 19.7. I don’t know what happened.”


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