Given its extensive disabled population, why is Cambodia only supplying the 2012 Paralympic Games with a solitary competitor?
By Claire Luke Photography by Nick Sells
For more than 50 years, the world’s finest disabled athletes have been competing in sporting extravaganzas that run alongside the Olympic Games. As far back as 1960, hundreds of athletes from across the globe gathered to go head-to-head in a multitude of disciplines. Now known as the Paralympic Games, the competition has been hailed for its meritocracy and inclusiveness, yet Cambodia will send only one athlete to the Games in London this summer.
The Kingdom has one of the highest disabled populations in the world, at 8.1%, according to the government’s 2009 Socioeconomic Survey. Thousands of those who have lost body parts to landmines, accidents or illness have turned to athletics for rehabilitation, a sense of empowerment and simply as an enjoyable hobby that revs their competitive juices and provides a goal to work toward.
“There is a huge demand for disabled volleyball. We’ve worked with more than 2,000 players so far. We have about 25 wheelchair racers, a new women’s wheelchair basketball programme, and disabled swimming and athletics,” said Christopher Minko, secretary-general of the Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled).
The reasons for Cambodia’s poor showing at the Games are twofold: first, Cambodia’s scarce resources for nondisabled and disabled athletics alike have prevented any athletes from qualifying for the Games; and second, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has taken measures to reduce Cambodia’s chances of participating.
Most athletics teams in Cambodia have few resources relative to other Southeast Asian countries. The national cycling team has only a couple of decades-old bicycles, national track and field athletes train in old footwear not made for runners, and many of the country’s athletics coaches are not familiar with scientific sports terminology such as lactic acid or VO2 max.
“We come from an empty hand. Our training conditions are sub-par,” said Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Olympic Committee.
Disabled athletes, even with the mightiest will and training programme, are limited by the lack of suitable training facilities, poor nutrition and low quality prosthetics and other equipment that enables them to perform.
In order to ensure developing countries like Cambodia can participate in the Paralympic Games, the IPC grants a certain number of wild cards to athletes from such countries that enable them to compete without meeting the qualifying standards. But it seems the IPC is not helping and may even be hurting Cambodia’s already disadvantaged disabled athletics prospects.
In the past, the IPC has granted two wild cards to Cambodia, but the world body announced last month it was reducing the number from two to one, and required that one athlete to be a female. Thin Seng Hon, a landmine victim who is a sprint runner with a prosthetic leg, will therefore be the only Cambodian athlete competing at the competition.
This means that Van Vun, a wheelchair racer considered to be the best disabled athlete in Cambodia, and who has won two silver medals at the Southeast Asian Games, cannot fulfil his dream of showcasing his talents in London. “I am very disappointed. London is what I have been waking up at 5am to train for every day. Cambodia has many more capable [disabled] athletes,” he said.
The IPC has decided against providing an explanation for the reduction, calling it an internal decision. “We are not giving reasons on our decision behind the wild card,” said Eva Werthmann, IPC media operations manager. “The decision was made at the sole discretion of the IPC.”
Many in the Cambodian sports community condemned the move, calling it shameful and another sign of the IPC’s exclusion of developing countries. “The Paralympic Games has become irrelevant to us,” said Minko. “It has become an elitist event for developed countries that ignores international disability demographics.”
The IPC removed disabled volleyball as a Paralympic sport after 2000 and has taken on sports that require high-tech equipment such as wheelchair racing, rowing, equestrian events and golf, a move Minko says cuts developing countries out of the Games because they cannot keep up financially or technologically.
“Volleyball is an ancient and cost effective sport that is ideal for the rehabilitation of landmine victims, it is a team sport that assists in reconciliation, which are all important factors for developing countries,” Minko said. “Developing countries can’t compete with high-tech sports. There just aren’t the resources.”
Cambodia has participated in a number of disabled volleyball world cups, boosting its world ranking in the process. But this means nothing for Paralympic prospects. “Our disabled volleyball team is number two in the world. Imagine if volleyball were a Paralympic sport and Cambodia made it to the finals, which is what would happen,” Minko said, adding that many developing nations are considering launching a media campaign and legal action against the IPC on the basis of discrimination.
“It’s enormously frustrating. There is a lot of anger toward the IPC for its ongoing refusal to listen to the voices of developing nations,” he said. “Van Vun is the most talented disabled independent athlete in Cambodia. Why isn’t he going to London?”
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