A Tale of Two Cambodian Marathoners: Neko Hiroshi and Dr. Nary Ly

Neko Hiroshi running in a Cambodian marathon
Hiroshi Neko

Hiroshi Neko is a comedian from Japan, whose popularity was fleeting. Nary Ly is a biology PhD who survived the Killing Fields.

Both are representing the Kingdom of Cambodia in the marathon competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Cambodia is not a sporting hotbed – no Olympic medalists have hailed from this Southeast Asian nation, despite participating in seven Summer Olympic Games. One fundamental reason was the massive genocide of 2 million people under the government of the Khmer Rouge, in a country that had only 8 million people at the time. To have a quarter of your population wiped out, including a large number of the young, inhibits the chance of athletic stars to emerge and shine.

Neko Hiroshi cat imitation
Hiroshi Neko the comedian

The qualifying time for the 2016 Olympic marathon is 2 hours and 19 minutes for men, and 2 hours and 45 minutes for women. Neither Hiroshi Neko, a naturalized Cambodian citizen, or Dr. Ly have qualifying times. But by virtue of a program to allow broader representation by countries lacking the dedicated resources for the development of world-class athletes, the International Olympic Committee has an allocation called “Universality Place.”

Both Dr. Ly and Hiroshi Neko were allocated universality placements by the IOC to represent Cambodia.

In 2011, Neko became a Cambodian citizen, with the hopes of going to the 2012 London Games under the blue-and-red-striped flag of Cambodia. The IOC ruled that Neko had not fulfilled a requirement of one year as a Cambodian citizen, and so did not qualify under the Universality Placement system. Additionally, there was criticism of Neko, that perhaps he was taking the place of a native Cambodian.

This May, Neko, who real name is Kuniaki Takizaki, came first in a marathon in Cambodia in which 10 other Cambodians competed. And he has the full support of the Cambodian government, according to this article from Kyodo News.

“We are happy and congratulate Mr. Neko on being admitted for the Olympic Games. He deserves to be admitted for his tireless efforts and hard training on his own,” said the secretary general of Cambodia’s Olympic committee, Vath Chamroeun.

“As you know, some countries spend much money to buy foreign nationals who are good at sports, but we pay nothing to Neko and instead he comes to help us,” said Pen Vuthy, secretary general of the Khmer Amateur Athletics Federation. He went on to say that Neko’s sacrifices for the sake of Cambodia are a source of pride for Cambodians.

Dr Nary Ly of Cambodia at the New York City Marathon
Nary Ly running in the New York City Marathon

At the same time, Dr Ly, who was Cambodian, is a native symbol of the Olympic spirit. She was born in 1973, two years before the Khmer Rouge emerged as the country’s overlords, as explained in this wonderful blog post. Dr Ly was thankfully too young to remember the horrors of that time and was able to survive until the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Dr Ly was 6 years old when the Red Cross evacuated her to France, where she was able to grow in safety, get an education, and become an expert biologist. Over the years, she has become a competitive runner, good enough to seek consideration for the 2012 London Olympics. But she was told at the time, when she was about 38, that she was too old.

“The men who run the [Cambodian sports] governing bodies told me I was too old to run at the Olympics,” she says. “Even then, I was the best in the country. They lacked knowledge of the spirit of the sport.”

In 2014 she committed to training for a chance at Rio, taking time off from her research work at the US Navy medical research lab in Phnom Penh, and going to Kenya for high altitude training. She has been seeking sponsors, but on the whole has been self supporting. And after Rio, she is unsure whether she will even have a job when she returns. But she certainly has spirit! As she explained in the blog post cited above:

“I’ve asked myself during runs, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ What for? Why fix a problem? Why find a cure? Why run? Why not do something different? But there is a reason. It’s better to die than not try to reach a goal.”

I don’t usually follow marathons, but I do look forward to seeing these two Cambodians do their best in the Rio Olympics.