Fleet Footed ‘Hiroshi Cat’ Is Cambodia’s Olympic Pick

Not many Cambodians will know the man that will represent them at the Olympic Games marathon in London, but in Japan, comedian Takizaki Kuniaki—better known as Neko Hiroshi or “Cat Hiroshi”—is well known for his feline impersonations.

When he is not making claw gestures and screaming a cat-like “nyah!” while surrounded by dancing and singing Japanese girls – his signature comedic setting — Mr. Takizaki, 34, runs marathons.

On Sunday, Mr. Takizaki, discovered that he will run the Olympic Marathon for Cambodia. He has already run a handful of races under the Cambodian flag, including at the South East Asian Games in November.

The latest post on Mr. Takizaki’s blog reflects his increasing presence in Cambodia, as it announces that he has gained Cambodian citizenship, will represent Cambodia and that “Hiroshi Cat” is now renamed “Hiroshi Chmar (cat in Cambodian).”

The Khmer Amateur Athletics Federation (KAAF) granted Mr. Takizaki citizenship late last year so that he could run for Cambodia, his local representative Keo Visal said.

He rarely spends time in Cambodia. But when he is here, Mr. Takizaki trains in Siem Reap province and on Bokor Mountain in Kampot province, as well as with national track and field coach Phay Sok, Mr. Visal said.

Mr. Takizaki was in Phnom Penh for a week earlier this month, and the one-hour he spent training at the Olympic Stadium seemed mostly for the sake of trailing Japanese photographers, Cambodian national team runner Khu Sros said.

“He trained for one hour while two cameramen from Japan followed him,” Mr. Sros said.

Cambodia’s National Olympic Committee Secretary-General Vath Chamroeun, who was key in choosing the comedian to run in the Olympics, said Mr. Takizaki often trains at the Angkor Wat temple complex, since he has a house in Siem Reap province.

“He runs 40 km a day. He is small but his legs are very fast; he has improved a lot in the past two years,” Mr. Chamroeun said.

Mr. Chamroeun and the KAAF first encountered Mr. Takizaki at the 2010 Angkor Wat Half Marathon, but “we only said hello because he is a very high up person,” Mr. Chamroeun said, adding that the comedian contacted the KAAF in 2011 saying he wanted to start training as a Cambodian runner since he has a tourism business here called “Cambodian Dream.”

“[Mr. Takizaki] started coming to Cambodia four or five years ago for travel, then he started competing in the Angkor Wat triathlon, then the Angkor Wat Half Marathon, and then last year’s Phnom Penh Half Marathon,” Mr. Visal said.

Cambodian Dream helped established the Phnom Penh Half Marathon, and the proceeds raised from last year’s entry fees-$35 for foreigners and $5 for Cambodians-were given to the families of mine victims, as they will be this year too, Mr. Chamroeun said.

Though Mr. Takizaki helped establish the Phnom Penh marathon–for which he will donate between $20,000 and $30,000 this year from his own pocket–he was beaten in the run last year by Hem Bunting, Cambodia’s best long distance runner. Ironically, Mr. Takizaki has replaced Mr. Bunting as Cambodia’s “wild card” entry to the Olympics. Wild cards, such as the one Mr. Takizaki is competing under, allows less developed countries send athletes to the Olympic even though they haven’t made the qualifying times required of athletes from countries with more developed athletics sectors.

Mr. Bunting has been estranged for some time from the Cambodian national team after strong differences of opinion with how the national team’s management and coaches were treating and training the country’s athletes. Mr. Bunting is now trying to earn a place in the Olympics independent of the national squad by trying to make the qualifying time. His chance will come at the Paris Marathon on April 15.

Several national team runners and athletics observers have expressed disappointment with Cambodia’s choice of runner for the London Olympics’ marathon, and are rooting for Mr. Bunting to come in below the qualifying time of 2 hours and 18 minutes in Paris.

And Cambodians who want to get a look at “Hiroshi Cat” will have their chance on June 17 when he competes in the Phnom Penh Half Marathon, which starts in front of the Royal Palace.

“He is even learning Khmer to try to speak with the Cambodian people,” Mr. Chamroeun said.

(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)

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