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Survivors Run Slowly
Robert Horn
December 15, 1997
A half marathon in war-torn Cambodia is more about hope than personal bests
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December 15, 1997

Survivors Run Slowly

A half marathon in war-torn Cambodia is more about hope than personal bests

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The terror vanishes when To Rithya runs. As Cambodia's top distance runner strides down the narrow jungle road, the murders and the beatings sink somewhere deep into his subconscious. He was only 11 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized power and began four years of mass murder in a mad attempt to reengineer society. Two million of the country's 7.2 million people were executed, starved or worked to death. In the town of Kompot, young To Rithya lost 13 members of his family, including his father, brothers and sisters. But when he runs, he leaves those times behind, and for a while his wounds are healed.

"Sport is very important to me personally, because it has helped make me strong," he says. "But sport can also help this country."

On Sunday, Dec. 22, 1996, To Rithya joined 650 runners from 15 countries who had come to Cambodia for the first distance race run through the remains of the ancient city of Angkor, a complex of intricate sandstone Hindu and Buddhist temples built between the eighth and 12th centuries. After Siamese troops sacked the city in 1431, it slowly returned to jungle. With crumbling temples scattered through the rain forest, Angkor makes one of the world's most spectacular racing routes. In Cambodia, however, there is always risk.

The runners in the Angkor half marathon wore white T-shirts that read, A RACE FOR PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP. Real peace, however, has not yet come to this tortured land. As runners gathered that morning, remnants of the Khmer Rouge still roamed the countryside not far from the ruins. Only three years ago few outsiders dared venture to Angkor. Of the 10 million land mines still littering Cambodian soil—the legacy of 30 years of war—some are buried around Angkor's outlying temples.

Among the thousands of spectators at the race were hundreds of people missing arms and legs. As many as 80,000 Cambodians have been killed or maimed by mines since 1979. Sok Saroeun is one of them. He lost his right arm seven years ago while fighting against the Khmer Rouge as a government soldier. Using his left arm to carry a flaming Olympic-style torch, he led the ceremonial prerace sprint on the stone causeway of Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples.

In their struggle to rebuild their shattered nation, Cambodians have not neglected sports, even though the country is desperately poor and athletes have little to work with. After a 20-year absence from international competition, the country's track and field team returned to the Asian Games in 1994 at Hiroshima, Japan. Last year Cambodians didn't win any medals at Atlanta, their first Olympics since Munich in 1972, but that wasn't important. Their presence was the victory.

A similar sense of triumph was palpable at the Angkor race, the first international sports competition in Cambodia since the Southeast Asian Games were held in Phnom Penh in 1962. Among the spectators there were cheers and hope. "I'm so happy to see all the foreigners here," said 15-year-old Nhit Chida, "because it means Angkor must really be safe now." As the racers dashed along the narrow rain forest road, shaded by towering banyan trees and sugar palms, hundreds of carved stone faces of Buddha on temple walls and city gates smiled down at them.

In the end Zhan Donglin, a member of China's national team, won the men's title with a time of 1:05:19. To Rithya came in third, at 1:13:01. Wang Xiujie, also of China, took the women's top spot in 1:12:27.

To Rithya will probably never be ranked among the world's fastest runners; his best time in the half marathon is 13:02 slower than this year's world best. At 33 he is probably past his prime. "I will run as long as my country needs me to," he says as he readies himself for the second annual half marathon at Angkor, on Dec. 21. "But I hope to train others, so there will be a new generation of Cambodian runners." A new generation that, he hopes, will be running toward a future filled with peace, instead of running from the horrors of the past.