Program Aims to Boost Local Sport
Can a land of killing fields become a land of playing fields?
In a country still unable to adequately feed, house and clothe its people even with massive donor aid, developing a program of sports and recreation may seem a frivolous waste of government time and money.
But a dedicated group of athletics officials, with support from Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihanouk, are planning to build an athletic system they say would greatly benefit Cambodia, especially its youth.
The current session of the National Assembly will be asked to help fund a proposed 15-year plan to develop athletic facilities and buy equipment. The plan is built into an overall education plan for the nation drawn up with the help of Unesco and Unicef.
The King has long been a supporter of sports, and Hun Sen has twice in recent weeks said he will personally oversee an upgrading of the nation’s sports programs.
Officials from the Department of Physical Education and Sport have quickly drawn up a mission statement for Hun Sen and the Assembly to consider.
“First we are asking for the creation of a High Council of Sport to make policy for all sports in Cambodia,” explains Yem Oddom, secretary-general of the Khmer Amateur Athletics Federation and overseer of the country’s track and field programs.
“We want to integrate sports and physical education into every primary school, secondary school and university in the country. We want to rebuild the infrastructure of sports, not just in Phnom Penh, but in the provinces.
“We want to attract the major advertisers, both national and international, and raise money. Finally we want to cooperate with other countries in hosting and participating in athletic events.
“Our goal is for Cambodia to rejoin a family of world athletics.
Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh is still the heart of Cambodian sports, but it’s a heart that needs some medicine. Grass barely grows on the football field, and the floor of the inside basketball court is so warped that the outdoor cement courts provide a truer bounce for a dribbler.
But Cambodian’s love of sport is evident on the pavement that surrounds the stadium. Every day, dawn to dusk, you can see people playing football, basketball, volleyball and other games. The courts may be drawn with chalk, and shoes may substitute for goalposts, but groups of adults, teenagers, and parents with children are out there kicking, hitting and throwing balls.
Inside the stadium you might find Olympic athletes To Rithya (men’s marathon) and Ouk Chanthann (women’s sprinter) methodically running up and down steps, building up their endurance. Over at the pool one recent morning, military trainees worked on their underwater swimming and breathing skills, good-naturedly laughing at each other as each swimmer came sputtering up to the surface for a gulp of air.
Also inside the stadium are the offices of the men who hope to harness the enthusiasm of the Cambodians playing outside the stadium and turn it into a sports program for the future.
Prum Bunyi is a deputy director in the Department of Physical Education and Sports, He’s involved in programs from the Olympics down to the elementary school level.
“I see three areas where we need to do a lot of work,” he says. “These are long-term goals that require a master plan.
“First we need facilities. In my generation, we had places to play football and basketball. Today so many schools have no place to play. That’s why everyone is [playing] outside the stadium.
“The prime minister has made himself quite clear on this point. When a new school is built, whether it’s primary, secondary or a university, it must have suitable space for sports practice. When picking school sites, the land must be cheap enough so it’s affordable to have not just fields, but room for flowers and trees so it’s a pleasant place.
“Second we need equipment,. We emphasize team sports because 10 or 15 people can spend 100 riel each and buy a football. But one badminton racquet can cost $13. That’s a month’s salary for a lot of people, and only one person can use it at a time.
“Before 1970, some sporting goods were produced in this country, but nothing since, and it’s expensive to import. So we’re asking the government for either a tax break for Cambodian companies that would manufacture equipment, or a lower tax rate on imported equipment.
“Third we need to attract young people to sports. There are too many negative influences in our society. Young people have 62 channels of TV to watch, Hong Kong films, cruel films, other bad stuff. Who knows what effect it has? We need to get them out on the fields, and have sports influence them instead.
The family of top-flight Cambodian athletes remains small. Yem Oddom, a former sprinter, long jumper and member of the national basketball team (“When I was thinner,” he jokes) will probably be sending the same two runner to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, To Rithya and Ouk Chanthann, who competed in 1996 in Atlanta. Both have managed to keep training while holding down full-time jobs as school physical education teachers.
Similarly if the International Olympic Committee allows two Cambodian swimmers to compete in Sydney, national team coordinator Hem Thon will probably be sending his two children, Hem Raksmey and Hem Kiry. Four years ago, Hem Raksmey went to Atlanta with older brother Hem Lumphat, who now works as a physical education teacher and swimming coach.
Since no Cambodian athletes in any sport can reach the Olympics qualifying standard, the IOC issues individual invitations based on which sports have room for more participants. Cambodia may receive as many as six invitations, including two in swimming.
There’s no trials system for picking the Cambodian Olympic team; instead a committee of national sports officials makes the selections. This obviously favors the established athletes over newcomers, bur it also takes into account the reality that only a very few athletes are training hard enough to be competitive n events outside Cambodia.
There are some glimmers of change. Yem Oddom oversees a growing program of scholastic, regional and national competitions in track and field. Last week, Prum Bunyi has visitors from Australia seeking to invite Cambodian athletes to a regional competition in 2001.
“Such events are good for us, because we can be competitive,” Prum Bunyi said of the Australian competition. “For now, we want to be even with out Southeast Asian neighbors. Next we want to be able to compete with the 44 countries at the Asia Games. Then maybe someday we can put an athlete on the medals podium at the Olympic.”
The swimming program is collecting some sponsorship money from the Milo division of Nestle Food, which also sponsors swimming programs in Laos and Thailand. With financial assistance from the IOC, swimming coordinator Hem Thon has hired Japanese coach Manabu Shibata to work with his athletes.
Money remains a problem. Hem THon still isn’t sure who is going to pay Shibata’s airfare to Sydney if any Cambodian swimmers are invited. Three weeks ago marathoner To Rithya didn’t have a plane ticket to Kuala Lumpur on day before he was scheduled to leave for a Malaysian race. The reason? The airline wanted cash, not a credit card number from the government officials.
Prum Bunyi remains optimistic. “We have a green light from the government to promote sports,” he said. “Now we just have to get the funding and get to work.