PHNOM PENH – Cambodia has selected an eccentric Japanese comedian to compete in the men’s marathon at the 2012 Olympic Games – but the country’s best long-distance runner is not amused.
His record time may be seven minutes faster than that of Japan-born television star Kuniaki Takizaki, mostly known for his quirky cat impressions, but Cambodian athlete Hem Bunting will not be competing in London in August.
The 27-year-old quit the national team in a huff last year after complaining about training conditions and falling out with the national athletics federation, prompting the body to tap Takizaki for a wild card to the Games.
But the move has proved controversial in both countries, setting Internet forums abuzz with critics bemoaning Takizaki’s hasty nationality change late last year and arguing that Cambodia should be nurturing homegrown talent.
“I wasn’t happy when I heard that the National Olympic Committee gave the wild card to Neko,” Bunting told Agence France-Presse, referring to Takizaki’s stage name Neko Hiroshi, which translates as Hiroshi The Cat.
“I see it as an injustice. Even though they’re not sending me to the Olympics, they should choose qualified Cambodians,” he said as he laced up his shoes for an afternoon run at the Olympic Stadium in the capital Phnom Penh.
Bunting’s last hope to get to the Olympics under his own steam was dashed at the Paris marathon last month when he failed to meet the qualifying time that would have earned him an automatic berth.
He ran a personal best and set a new Cambodian record of 2:23:29 for the 42.2-kilometre (26.2-mile) course, but fell short of the required time of 2:18.
Impoverished Cambodia has limited means to promote sporting talent and plans to contest only a handful of Olympic events, all thanks to wild card entries to encourage developing countries.
Takizaki, 34, who first ran a marathon as part of a TV variety show, has performed well in several long-distance races in Cambodia. While he has never outrun Bunting, he is faster than other Cambodian marathon runners and his efforts have won over fans and impressed local officials.
“It’s true that he is faster than I am at this point, and I face up to this reality,” Takizaki, currently training in Japan, wrote on his blog last month.
Takizaki’s Cambodian spokesman Keo Visal told AFP the celebrity runner, who was given Cambodian citizenship after he impressed officials while visiting to compete in long-distance races, was working hard to improve his speed.
“He loves Cambodia… and he’s Cambodian now,” the spokesman added, noting that Takizaki had helped secure sponsorship for the Phnom Penh half-marathon and provided aid to victims of last year’s unusually severe floods.
But it’s far from certain Takizaki will be London-bound soon.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) is set to announce soon whether he’s even eligible to compete amid doubts he meets the requirement of having been a Cambodian citizen for at least a year.
If Takizaki is rejected, Bunting said he expects Cambodia to pull out of the marathon event altogether and choose a less contentious athlete for a different discipline.
But for now, the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) and the Khmer Amateur Athletics Federation (KAAF) insist the funny man from Japan has their full support.
“Yes, Hem Bunting is number one. His record is good but his discipline is not,” said NOCC secretary general Vath Chamroeun, adding that Bunting had let organisers down in past races by leaving unexpectedly or forgetting his uniform.
But the Cambodian apparently did not cause any trouble at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he was the flag bearer at the opening ceremony. He placed 73rd in the marathon, with a time 10 minutes slower than his latest record.
Ahead of the Beijing race, Bunting’s story – he was so poor at the time that he lived at the rundown stadium where he trained – was profiled by international media, prompting one reader to send him new running shoes.
“I’m a son of Cambodians. I was born in Cambodia. I tried to find sponsors, to get training abroad but for what?” said Bunting of his struggles to make it as a runner.
“I know it’s partly for myself, but my goal is also to promote Cambodian sports in the international arena.”
KAAF secretary general Pen Vuthy said Bunting had not burned his bridges with the federation and could well rejoin the national team.
It would be too late for the Olympics, but “perhaps he could represent Cambodia at next year’s SEA Games in Myanmar”, he said.