It has the world’s highest percentage of amputees yet Cambodia is sending just one athlete to the Paralympics, an event critics say increasingly favors nations that can afford the latest high tech gear.
Thin Seng Hon, who was born without a fully formed right leg, will be Cambodia’s sole representative in London early next month when she competes in the 100m and 200m sprints in the below-the-knee amputee category.
Her “lucky leg”, as she calls the $2,500 J-shaped running blade which allows her to race, helped her to three podium places at a regional athletics meet last year.
But she doubts it will keep pace with the higher-tech prosthetics of her rivals in London.
“I don’t expect to win a medal,” the 28-year-old said after a morning training session at Phnom Penh’s run-down Olympic Stadium, explaining her opponents will likely benefit from “more modern prosthetics” costing several times that of her own.
Living in a poor country already puts her at a disadvantage — she trains on a dirt track and balances running with a full-time job at a souvenir shop where she earns $120 a month.
But it is her artificial leg, paid for by donations from friends, that leaves her trailing rivals before the competition even begins.
The prosthetic is not custom-built for sprinting and is less comfortable and shock absorbent than those owned by her first world rivals, prompting her coach Phay Sok to bemoan a technology gap pitting his protege against those with the “best” prosthetics “worth tens of thousands of dollars.”
Yet Thin Seng Hon is lucky to be on the plane to London at all.
None of Cambodia’s disabled athletes qualified for the Games, leaving the nation’s hopes of glory dependent on a wildcard entry, gifted by the Paralympics’ governing body.
The single spot belies Cambodia’s grim status as home to the most amputees per capita anywhere in the world, a statistic driven in part by decades of unrest that have left the small nation littered with landmines.
An estimated 25,000 people have lost limbs to mines, according to figures from charity the Halo Trust, but successful demining schemes have lowered the incident rate over the last decade.
Now, like many other developing countries, the majority of the nation’s disabled athletes are victims of disease, traffic accidents and poor medical care.
Cambodian sporting figures are furious only one wildcard was offered and want more slots to offset a lack of funding, facilities and technologically advanced equipment.
Cambodia’s humble representation is put into perspective by the figures which show some 4,200 athletes from 166 countries will be competing for 503 gold medals in what will be the biggest Paralympic Games to date.
If poorer countries are not well represented at the Games they will fall into a spiral of sporting decline, warned wheelchair racer Van Vun.
“If we can’t take part, we’ll never know the ability of athletes from big countries or learn from their training,” he told AFP after breezing by rivals in a training race in a park in the capital.
The 26-year-old, who was paralyzed by polio at the age of three, won two silver medals at the 2011 Asean Para Games in Indonesia — where Thin picked up a gold and two silvers — but was crushed to learn his performance fell short of the qualifying standard for London.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) says demand for wildcards from the 166 competing countries outstrips the spots available in the different disciplines.
“We had thousands of wildcard applications,” Craig Spence, the IPC’s director of media and communications told AFP, adding the body handed out 61 wildcards to 50 mostly developing nations.
“At the end of the day the Paralympic Games is an elite sporting event and we want the best athletes in the world to be competing.”
Acknowledging the widening technology gap, Spence said the IPC had regulations in place to “try to ensure a level playing field” and that the wildcard system — capped at two per country — aimed to include poorer nations.
Hundreds of athletes from developing nations will compete in London, he added, noting that many among them “will have just one, two or three athletes” compared to Team GB for example, which will have some 300 participants, and the more than 280 Chinese Paralympians.
Despite her long odds for a medal finish, Thin Seng Hon is delighted to be representing Cambodia and hopes to at least beat her personal best sprint times.
“I feel excited and I will try my best because I’m the only athlete to participate,” she said beaming. “They [Cambodian officials] picked me over all the others.”