For Bodybuilding Federation, Recognition Elusive

With just days until the World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championships begins in Thailand, Cambodia’s bodybuilding team is in limbo.

Having garnered last-minute approval from the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) to officially represent the country, the nine-member crew is still waiting on a final letter of recognition from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.

Members of the Cambodian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation pose at the King Kong Fitness Center in Phnom Penh earlier this month. (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)

This final approval would make competitors eligible to receive cash awards from the government if they were to win a medal, similar to last week’s prize of $40,000 given to Ke Leng, who won her second petanque world championship earlier this month.

It could also help the team get matching uniforms.

“Honestly, at this point we are simply asking for national tracksuits for the team,” Sokmongkol Rasmey, president of the Cambodian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (CBBFF), said during an interview earlier this month.

“Right now, we look like dribs and drabs,” said Mr. Rasmey, who goes by Raz and runs a visa services firm, pointing at photographs of the team at recent regional competitions, in which they are clad in a clashing assortment of sportswear.

The federation will cover the cost of bus travel to and from the championships in Bangkok, which start tomorrow. But each of the nine men set to flex and preen for the judges have had to stump up the $420 to secure a spot in the competition, which includes a hotel room, food and entry to the event’s afterparty.

This is no small cost for the bodybuilders, six of whom work as relatively low-paid personal trainers.

“I am not angry, but I want to tell you from my heart,” said Sok Sopheak, 35, Cambodia’s most successful bodybuilder, who placed second at the 2013 Asian Bodybuilding Championships and fourth at the 2013 SEA Games in Burma.

“I pay for everything by myself: passport myself, training myself, food myself, accommodation myself. Everything myself,” he said.

Tek Bunvy, 44, the reigning Mr. Angkor, said that he spends much of the salary he makes as an accountant for a medical company on training and supplements.

Reaching into his gym bag, he pulled out a black pill bottle: “This tub of fat-burning pills cost $85,” he said, adding that despite stiff competition, he liked his chances in Bangkok.

“The world champion will be there, so it will be hard, but in my heart, I have to win.”

Hy Dynarin, 41, the owner of the King Kong Fitness Center in Phnom Penh, where many of the team members train, has seen the sport develop from a purely domestic pursuit to overseas competitions. But Mr. Dynarin, the winner of the first Mr. Cambodia competition in 1999, lamented the continued lack of support for bodybuilders as other non-Olympic sports such as petanque and vovinam, a Vietnamese martial art, have received increasing assistance.

“When they build up muscle, there is no money, so motivation is hard,” he said, as a member of the national team trained at his gym earlier this month. “I ask the government for help to help us improve.”

According to Em Heang, director of the NOCC’s administrative department, the bodybuilding federation’s membership in the committee expired in 2010.

“So we cannot recognize them and be responsible for them,” he said on Wednesday. “To become valid again, they should hold a general meeting to elect new board members and then submit a request with a list of names of the new members to us.”

Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the NOCC, said on Friday that the CBBFF did hold a meeting to elect a new board in 2013, but had failed to complete the necessary paperwork to finish the registration process.

However, he said that the federation’s paperwork and board had now been approved and the CBBFF was one step away from gaining membership after he had sent a last-minute letter of endorsement to the Ministry of Education.

“The system for recognition is that once the NOCC has approved the membership, the federation sends one letter with this recognition to the Ministry of Education, and then they can give official recognition on behalf of the government,” he said.

Mr. Chamroeun said that new auditing rules had forced a change in the way things are done, although he had previously signed off on official trips by the CBBFF.

“For me, I am good with [Mr. Rasmey], and I always support him. So I closed my eyes and signed for them to go to SEA games in Myanmar,” he said of the 2013 games. “But this time, I cannot because our auditors are checking to ensure that only NOCC members are getting support.”

Regarding issuing tracksuits to the team, Mr. Chamroeun said it was too late.

“Because this is the end of the year, there is no more available,” he said.

As of Sunday, it remained unclear if the CBBFF would enter this week’s competition representing Cambodia in an official capacity.

Ouk Sethycheat, director general of sport in the Ministry of Education, said he could not comment on the matter.

“I have not seen any letter, so I cannot provide any comment,” he said.

Mr. Rasmey, the head of the bodybuilding federation, insisted that whatever procedural issues had prevented the team from getting official recognition were the fault of a former staffer at the NOCC. He said his team would be heading to Bangkok this morning regardless of where the government stood.

“We are still going,” he said.

“I am personally paying for the bus fees for everyone,” he added. “And after a crisis meeting last week—to cut a long story short—I am paying for half the team to go or else they wouldn’t be able to go.”

(Additional reporting by Buth Kimsay)

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