As a small boy in the 1950s, Yi Sarun spent much of his time chasing after tennis balls hit out of bounds by high-ranking officials in his home province of Battambang.
“I never had a coach. I would just stand there and observe the rich people playing…. Sometimes they would let me hold the racket and play,” Mr. Sarun said at a cafe in Phnom Penh last week.
Just over a decade later, Mr. Sarun was dominating courts of his own across the region as part of the Cambodian national tennis team, winning trophies abroad as the country’s sports scene entered the “golden era” of the mid-1960s to early 1970s.
“Sport was so developed and strong in the 1960s because we had good salaries, free food and we were sponsored well enough to excel,” Mr. Sarun said.
In 1965, King Norodom Sihanouk, a passionate tennis fan himself, sent Mr. Sarun and five other athletes to train for a year in China.
Upon returning, Mr. Sarun began picking up medals alongside Tep Khunnah, the “father of Cambodian tennis,” including a gold at the 1966 Games of the New Emerging Forces in Phnom Penh and bronze at the 1973 Southeast Asian Games in Singapore.
But just as Cambodian sports stars were beginning to make modest waves in the region, the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975.
Athletes, male and female, were targeted by the regime, which perceived sports, and tennis in particular, to be dangerously bourgeois.
“I threw out everything that showed who I was and had to pretend to be a cyclo driver,” said Mr. Sarun who, when questioned about his athletic physique by the regime’s cadre, said he had merely been an amateur football player.
“If they knew who I was, I would have been killed.”
Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, Cambodian athletes have struggled to regain their status.
This past week, today’s top crop of Cambodian athletes traveled to Incheon in South Korea to compete against the continent’s finest in the Asian Games, which kicked off Friday.
Hopes for significant improvement on 2010’s campaign—which yielded no medals for the Cambodian team—remain slim, though, with athletes bemoaning a lack of funding and training facilities.
Long-distance runner Hem Bunting, one of the more decorated and recognized Cambodian athletes competing in the games, accused the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and the National Olympic committee of lacking the will to nurture sporting talent.
“I haven’t prepared well because the Ministry hasn’t focused enough on athletes who have real ability,” said Mr. Bunting, who is often forced to dodge cars and motorbikes while training on Phnom Penh’s busy streets.
“We don’t have much of a chance of winning medals, but we should at least be able to compete with pride,” he said.
Mr. Bunting says the government should look to the past for guidance on how to inspire the next generation of athletes.
“During the 1960s, the government supported sports,” he said.
“I think there is a desire from some in the government to develop [athletes], but many think only about personal benefit, and they have nothing to gain from lower-level sportsmen,” he said.
“They just eat the meat and throw away the bones.”
Hem Thon, widely considered the country’s best swimmer and a deputy secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, said that while Cambodia’s recent athletic showings have been respectable, the country’s a mere shadow of what it was in the 1960s.
Mr. Thon, who originally had dreams of becoming a football star but turned to swimming after his mother wouldn’t let him take part in a training trip to China in 1959, won 12 medals at international competitions during the 1960s, including at the SEA Games.
“Cambodian sports were very developed in the 1960s, we had almost everything you needed,” he said.
“Before, there were sports centers across the country for athletes to train at, whether it was in schools or military and police headquarters,” he said.
“Now, you can’t find anything outside of Phnom Penh,” Mr. Thon said, highlighting the demise of training centers in Battambang and Kompong Cham provinces, which he said produced the country’s top athletes in the 1960s.
“Battambang used to produce the strongest athletes, especially boxers, and part of that was due to the facilities there…. There were centers across the province. Where are they now?” he said.
“The swimming pool in Battambang was 50 meters in the 1960s, now it’s 20 meters, because half of the building was turned into a KTV,” Mr. Thon said, comparing the situation there to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, parts of which have been slowly sold off over past few years.
Universities also made athletics a higher priority, Mr. Thon said.
“The Royal University of Phnom Penh used to have many sports fields, including football pitches and basketball courts. They’ve all been built on [now], so there’s nowhere for athletes there to train,” he said.
While a lack of adequate training facilities is stifling athlete’s ability to improve on their skills, Mr. Thon said a larger problem is a lack of sports-focused government officials.
“Before the Khmer Rouge…[officials at] all administrative levels were well educated in how to develop sports,” he said, explaining that the majority of these officials were either killed by the Khmer Rouge, or fled the country.
“In 1980, everything had to be rebuilt, and these were new people who didn’t understand. Of course, people were more worried about where their next meal was coming from then.”
And while sports took a predictable backseat for the next two decades, as Cambodia grappled with civil war and political instability, Education Ministry officials still lack the ability and will to foster athletes properly, he said.
“I think Samdech Hun Sen wants to [develop sports] in the same way Prince Sihanouk did, but we are lacking in implementation, because the change needs to come from the bottom of our hearts,” he said.
Mel Kado, deputy director-general of the Education Ministry’s youth and sports department, said comparing the 1960s to the present day is not fair, as the country is still recovering from decades of conflict.
“We suffered war for a long time, and we just restarted efforts to develop sports again in recent years. To get a good result in such a short period is impossible,” he said.
Mr. Kado said the ministry recently pumped $1 million into bonuses, equipment and food for young athletes in the build up to the 2023 SEA Games, which Cambodia will host.
In a speech at Olympic Stadium on Thursday, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron outlined plans to bolster athletics in the country.
“We must train coaches for the SEA Games 2023…[and] send athletes to train abroad,” said Mr. Chuon Naron.
“There must also be more stadiums built in the provinces. We need to find new athletes and this will help,” he said, adding that in the future, more money would be spent on sponsoring young prospects from the provinces to train in Phnom Penh.
Mr. Sarun, who now coaches aspiring tennis stars, said the government should seize the opportunity to use sports as a way to salvage the country’s image.
“I dare not say too much about politics because I am a powerless person. But I don’t think the government does enough,” he said.
“I hope to see sports improve here, because they are very important to showing Cambodia…in a good light again.”