Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Cambodia: spectacle of the elite and the barefoot

via Khmer NZ News Media

Guardian Weekly reader Laura Watson takes part in a race with Khmer elite runners along the Pursat river and witnesses first-hand the Cambodian love of sport

Laura Watson
Guardian Weekly, Wednesday 6 January 2010

The starting point was a dusty white line across a steeply cambered narrow road, about 8km out of Pursat, a town in the heart of rural Cambodia. Marked also was the start of one of Cambodia's monsoon downpours, accompanied by clap of thunder. I joined the group of bedraggled runners and groaned as we found we were still waiting for the official timekeeper.

The Khmer elite runners, most of the top team, jogged up and down to warm up, bouncing as if they were on springs. Finally we were off.

I tried to settle into my pace and not shoot off too fast. The smallest kids ran beside and in front of me, many in bare feet or flip-flops. One had shoes several sizes too big that slapped loudly with each footfall. It was distracting so I ran ahead. His smaller barefoot colleague kept up with me and we ran alongside each other for a while in companionable silence.

The run took us along the Pursat river, swollen and brown with monsoon rain. Small houses and cafes lined much of the route. Children shouted out greetings and held out their hands for a good-luck slap. Few dogs bothered us, a common hazard for runners on Cambodia's roads and tracks. Perhaps they had been subdued by the weather.

Reaching the outskirts of Pursat brought dry weather and a smoother surface but more obstacles. Many people passed by on motorbikes carrying goods for sale, babies in woolly hats, even entire extended families. All stared at the unusual spectacle of hundreds of runners along their main road.

The last part of a race is always the hardest and the stretch past the market and the small hotel was no exception – a sharp turn to the right and the stadium was just about in sight. This consisted of a muddy field with an indistinct finish line.

Crossing the line in second place I bent down to receive my pink plastic garland and a tag proving my place. All our elite Cambodian friends had done well.

Athletics is poorly funded in Cambodia and runners have to train and live on minuscule amounts of money – even a national team athlete must try to feed himself on about $30 a month, and the one pair of cheap trainers they receive a year is barely adequate for the job. But their love for the sport is obvious and you get the feeling that they would all run anyway, even if they had nothing.

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