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Against the Odds: Hem Bunting

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The lack of finance is a recurring theme in conversation with Cambodia's athletes

The BBC's Against the Odds series is following athletes heading to the Olympics despite huge obstacles.

Guy De Launey meets a Cambodian runner so poor he lives in the crumbling athletics stadium where he trains.

Hem Bunting proudly fishes his medals out of one of a line of narrow, wooden lockers. One is silver, the other is bronze, and they confirm his status as one of the best distance runners in Southeast Asia.

At the SEA Games in Thailand last year, only one man could beat Bunting in the marathon. Just two finished ahead of him in the 5,000m.

Soon he will represent Cambodia at the Olympic marathon in Beijing, one of just four athletes in his country's Olympic team.

Living in stadium

It is amazing that Bunting has come so far.

Hem Bunting
Best time in the marathon is 2:26:28 (World record, 2:04:26)
Aged 25; Weight 56kg; Height 1.67m
In action on Sunday 24 August, 0030 GMT

As he sits down on his simple wooden bed, with a mosquito net nailed above, he casts his eyes down the room. There are dozens of similar beds with barely enough room to walk between them.

This is where Cambodia's elite athletes live, all together in an improvised dormitory overlooking the swimming pool at Phnom Penh's crumbling Olympic Stadium.

Bunting says the living arrangements leave a lot to be desired.

"Sometimes my team-mates come back late at night when I am trying to get some rest," he complains.

Perhaps it would not be so bad if the morning starts were not so early. The sun has yet to rise when Bunting makes his way down to the dirt track to start his warm-up routine.

Second class citizens

Sometimes he restricts himself to laps around the perimeter.

Hem has to deal with heavy traffic on his training runs

That, however, is not ideal preparation for a marathon runner - especially as he has to swerve round crowds of early-morning exercisers shuffling round the track.

"There are too many people around," says Bunting. "I'm always having to slow down and swerve around them."

The elite athletes say they are often treated as second-class citizens by staff at the stadium.

On one recent morning they arrived to find the gates locked, and they were told they would have to train somewhere else.

The coaches were just as outraged as their charges - and, grim-faced, continued their track drills after everyone had squeezed through a gap in the perimeter fence.

No money for shoes

Bunting and his training partner Cheng Chandara mutter that it all boils down to cash.

The room in the stadium that Hem calls home
The Olympic athletes all live in a dilapidated stadium

If athletics were a rich sport, they reckon, they would not be facing these problems.

The lack of finance, however, is a recurring theme in any conversation with Cambodia's best Olympic hope.

He receives an allowance of less than $50 a month which leaves him hard-pressed to cover his basic living expenses.

A pair of running shoes costs around double that amount, and with no corporate sponsorship Bunting finds it tough to buy the equipment he needs.

The average Cambodian earns $380 per year, so Hem's relatives can only provide moral support - and even then, from a distance.

Traffic-choked streets

Bunting is one of nine children from a farming family in the remote province of Stung Treng, where sports officials spotted his talent at a provincial event and brought him to the capital.

Hem rests during a training session. The marks from traditional "cupping" therapy can be seen on his back.
Hem Bunting is sometimes given traditional acupuncture

Now he pounds the traffic-choked streets around Phnom Penh in the run-up to the Olympics.

With no large, green spaces in the city, putting the miles in means sucking up red dust and exhaust fumes from the lorries and SUV's which thunder past, and dodging the motorbikes driving the wrong way up the gutter.

At least it means that, unlike some famous marathon runners, Bunting has no concerns about pollution levels in Beijing.

With the Games just over the horizon, government officials and business people alike have started to wake up to the plight of the Olympian in their midst.

Several have pledged three-figure sums to Bunting to help with his equipment costs.

And despite all the hardship, Bunting is proud to be representing Cambodia.

"This is a wonderful thing that I can do for my country," he smiles. "Nobody else can do it - only me."


Here are a selection of your comments on this story:

My prayers are for Bunting to achieve something down in China inspite of all the hardships he's going through even in training. I just can't believe the authorities are having a careless attitude and not seeing the welfare of someone wanting to bring honor to the country. Mr Hem l wish you all the best and that something good comes out when you step on the tarmac that day.
Charles O. Yeboah, Stuttgart/Germany

I'm very glad that the BBC has brought these great stories to people like me. It's wonderful and inspiring to see such spirit. I wish Hem all the best and hope his ability and the media spotlight urges sponsors to support him. Athletes like Hem from the so called "third world" deserve the funding they need to train and compete fairly in international sports. The story on Hem Bunting is well-told. The focus on the poverty of his situation and the odds against him is certainly relevant. However, I feel this story needs a level of empathy rather than sympathy for the athlete. What seems remarkable to me is Hem's courage, determination and self-awareness.
Kamalika, Cambridge, UK

I feel both sad and proud of being Cambodian by birth in hearing story like these. I'm sure that this kind of story will touch many Cambodians living abroad. Cambodia's organization responsible for Khmer's atheletes should set up ways to raise funds both inside and outside the country to help Cambodia's talents. Thanks for sharing the story.
Dara Ung, Harwood, Maryland, USA

I can't believe the conditions these athletes are forced to train in - I can't see British or American athletes being treated like this. Does Hem - or indeed any of his fellow athletes - have any items of equipment that they need or any assistance with their living costs? I would like to help a little if I can.
Allison, Southsea, England

Very inspiring story of a person who came on top against all odds. I salute you for your persistence.
Hammad, Toronto, Canada

I wish you the best Hem. Your story is one of courage and determination. I spent some time in Cambodia and have very found memories of the gracious people of your country! I will be cheering you on from Canada!!
Melissa Endo, Canada

I lived in Cambodia and know exactly what Hem is going through regarding the training conditions. Every morning myself and a few others would run the streets of Phnom Penh and encounter exactly what is described in this article. It is sad to see that Hem has been forgotten by his own government and community. In such cases I think it would be fantastic if other countries or international corporations would step in to sponsor such athletes. I wish Hem all the best in China and will follow his progress.
Jason O'Connor, Pittsburgh USA

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