by Suy Se
PHNOM PENH, May 30 (AFP) - Winning Cambodia’s firstOlympic medal would be a dream come true for thekingdom’s four-member team, but heading to Athens isthrill enough in a country where years of war mean sportis still a luxury.
Cambodia has only a handful of athletes, hardly anyqualified sports professionals and few sportingfacilities – a legacy of the brutal 1970s Khmer Rougeregime and decades of conflict that ended just six yearsago.
There is no way we can win any medals in thegames,'' a resigned Meas Sarin, National OlympicCommittee of Cambodia (NOCC) secretary general, told AFPwith a sigh. We don’t have a strong enough economy to afford todevelop sports by buying equipment, building venues andhaving proper diets,’’ he said of the aid-dependentkingdom, where malnutrition rates are appallingly high.
Cambodians are not expecting any podium finishes, buttheir athletes’ presence on the world sporting stage isan inspiration in this impoverished nation.
This is a very proud event for Cambodia,'' MeasSarin said. Sports here were wiped out during the long-runningwar years but now we are back in the internationalarena, we are getting to know the world. We are not in adeep black hole anymore.’’
Phnom Penh’s 1965-built Olympic Stadium, badly damagedduring the Khmer Rouge years and used onlyintermittently since, reopened specifically for theathletes earlier this month.
Sou Titlinda, one of Cambodia’s two 100-metre sprinthopefuls, jogged on the spot as she was interviewed, hercoach unwilling to waste precious minutes during herthree-month intensive training period.
I don't have any hope of winning in these Olympics-- I have never even been to a competition abroadbefore,'' the 16-year-old said in a comment that wouldhorrify most Western sports psychologists. This is a chance for me to gain experience, not wina medal,’’ Titlinda said.
It won't be easy, but to help the reputation of mycountry and myself, I will do my best to run in theraces.'' Cambodia sent its first Olympic team to Melbourne in1956 and headed to Tokyo in 1964 and Munich in 1972. Butthe rise of the Pol Pot regime halted all sport here andthe kingdom rejoined the Games only in 1996 with afive-athlete delegation to Atlanta. Swimmer Hem Kiri, 24, who will compete in the 50-metrefreestyle event, laments their lack of preparation. This coming competition will be difficult because mytraining time is so short,’’ he said.
Of course, we need more equipment and places totrain. We cannot swim in the river.'' Until the waters of the algae-ridden pool at thestadium were cleansed and opened this month, they wereforced to train in a 30-metre hotel pool. Kiri, who is the son of a veteran Olympic swimmer andis being trained by an NOCC-sponsored South Koreancoach, is striving to better his time of 26.68 secondsat the Sydney Olympics, a way off the world record of21.64 set by Russia's Alexander Popov in 2000. Meanwhile, he has been making the most of three monthsof free meals -- hearty Cambodian curries, soups andstir-fries -- served to the team at a restaurant outsidethe stadium. I have gained a bit of weight so my instructor isnow keeping careful watch over me all the time,’’ Kirisaid.
``Athletes need energy – when we don’t have enoughfood and financial support, we can’t expect greatresults.’’