Cambodian Olympians: a Third World Tale
SYDNEY - They competed with the world's fastest, reveled dream-like in cheers.
But when Cambodia's two Olympian swimmers return home they may not even get the dollar a day they need to train in a short and shallow hotel pool.
Their real world, the Third World, will again close in on Hem Raksmey, her brother Kiry and Cambodia's two other athletes at the Sydney Olympics.
Sprinter Ouk Chan Than, who finished dead last in the 100-metre heats, goes back to a dangerously uneven, gravel and grass track. The swimming siblings will hope the bankrupt government can afford the entrance fee to the Plaza Hotel pool. And none will be able to eat the carefully selected, high-energy diets of their coddled competitors from the moneyed world.
``I stood with them and I knew they were the best, but I still wanted to compete against them. After all, I also have two arms and two legs,'' says Hem Raksmey of her 50-metre freestyle race last week.
She faced the best: bodies molded by science into shapes male bodybuilders would love to own, courted by sponsors offering lucrative deals.
Swimmers like Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, who set an Olympic record that day of 24.46 seconds.
Shortly before came Hem's moment in the world limelight. On the starting blocks stood equally nervous competitors from Olympic also-ran nations - Sri Lanka, Nepal, Iraq, Palestine and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
There was no swagger, sulk or tears to which the stars are prone. Hem Raksmey gave spectators a smile and a ``sompia,'' the clasped hands, prayer-like Cambodian greeting. Then she swam her heart out.
Hem finished sixth out of seven with a time of 33.11, 70 out of 73 overall. Results in her heat were a time zone away from those of the elite. The great divide, evident in almost every Olympic event, was stark.
Even among the sports have-nots, Cambodia ranks very low. A generation of athletes was lost on the Khmer Rouge killing fields of the mid-1970s and earlier that decade during the Cambodian War.
Now, the country is kept afloat by international handouts and most people worry too much about survival to give sports a thought. In a country where salaries average US$20 a month, a US$1 a day out of one's own pocket is prohibitive.
Special dietary supplements daily taken by American and other champions are out of the question. So are high-energy food items like breakfast cereals.
``We have them in Cambodia, but they're too expensive. They're for tourists, not athletes,'' says Hem Raksmey's 21-year-old brother. But most of all, Hem Kiry longs for a decent pool, more international competition and some sponsors.
When the Olympic Stadium in the capital of Phnom Penh was closed last month for renovation that could last as long as three years, Hem Kiry and his 18-year-old sister had to start using the hotel pool, which measures only 30 metres - 20 metres shorter than the Olympic standard, and only one metre deep, too shallow for executing turns. It also has no starting blocks.
Until August, when they were forced to move, the stadium had been the family's home for 20 years, since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, who starved to death three of the family's 11 children, destroyed the athletic infrastructure and turned Phnom Penh into a ghost town.
Staggering back from a slave labor camp in 1979, their father Hem Thon, a former national swimming team coach, found several empty rooms near the cracked and empty pool. The stadium had served as a Khmer Rouge execution ground.
Under his direction the two children started training at age seven and at 14, Hem Raksmey swam in the Atlanta Games, becoming the first Cambodian to compete in the Olympics since 1972.
Her rivals were already out of the pool toweling off but the crowd erupted in a thunderous applause when one of the Games' youngest athletes finished her 50-metre breaststroke heat in last place.
Unlike Western swimmers who compete almost year-around on an international circuit, Hem Raksmey has swam only three times outside her country since Atlanta. Domestic competition is limited to two races a year, one a fun swim across the Mekong River.
``Can sponsors help?'' the Cambodians are asked. The response is hearty laughter. Hem Thon could not even get ticket to Sydney and sprinter Ouk Chan Than had to catch a bus when she competed in Vietnam.
A little help is forthcoming for sports development from the International Olympic Committee and the world federations which govern sports. The Japanese government has funded Manabu Shibata, a former swimmer, to help coach the Cambodians.
Although she gets nothing at home, Ouk Chan Than was presented with two pairs of running shoes and a track suit from the Cambodian government before coming to Sydney.
``Even if I prayed to the Lord Buddha, I knew that I wouldn't win,'' said Hem Kiry. But he, like other athletes from the Third World, won his own race, clocking a personal best of 26.41 in the men's 50-metre freestyle and beating nine competitors.
Poor pools, lousy tracks, no airline tickets and no breakfast cereals. But the Cambodians say they're all eager to start training again. They plan to be in Athens for the 2004 Olympics. - AP