It was the Angkor Wat half-marathon a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t there since I was committed to the Singapore Marathon on the same day. But I was in Angkor Wat a couple of days ago, and the paint was still fresh on the road surface, indicating the kilometre marks and the turning points. One of the stallholders, selling drinks and trinkets outside the temples said that she and her colleagues all raced to the roadside, to applaud the runners. Otherwise she didn’t have much idea of what a half-marathon was, apart from,”There were a lot of people”. Over 2,500 in fact.
There can be few races run in such exotic and lush surroundings, through the jungle, past the principal temples of the Angkor complex, incuding the ‘biggie,’ Angkor Wat itself, the final manifestation of the Angkor Empire which ruled 800 years ago in what we now know as Cambodia.
The half-marathon was started 12 years ago, on the initiative of Japanese marathoner, Yuko Arimori, who won Olympic silver in Barcelona ‘92, and bronze in Atlanta ‘96. Two years later, Arimori launched the charity Heart of Gold, dedicated to victims of landmines, and HIV/Aids in Cambodia. Following this year’s race, she reflected, “The Cambodians aren’t ready for a full marathon yet. They need to build up to it after the period of war”. That, of course is a reference to the more recent and terrifying history of Cambodia.
One of the advantages of doing what I do is that, firstly, it’s better than working for a living; but secondly, travelling regularly to places like Singapore affords an opportunity to explore a part of the world relatively distant from my base in western Europe. Last year, for example, I used the Singapore trip to go to Hanoi, where, among other memorable things, I met several Vietnam vets, on one of their regular visits. The Vietnamese, incidentally call it the American War. These former US soldiers were still trying to put the trauma of their experience 30 years ago behind them. “What makes it worse,” said one, “is that no Vietnamese has ever uttered a world of criticism about the war, nor even asked me why we came here back then. They have simply been welcoming”.
As I wrote last week in a profile of Singapore winner (and world champion) Luke Kibet and the murderous violence in Kenya a year ago, little prepared me (outside of a visit to the Dachau concentration camp, while I was the Munich Olympics in 1972) for the dual manifestations of the most recent dynasty in Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge. Khmer incidentally is the local name for the Cambodian people and their language.
Before going to Angkor Wat, I visited Phnom Penh. The Cambodian capital, built on the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers has an air of faded empire, in this case, the French one. Since, like in neighbouring Vietnam, the French were here for close to 100 years.
Without going into the labyrinthine ramifications of this particular branch of colonial policy, since I’m not sure I understand it anyway, the insurrection in Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia, and permitted the rise of the Khmer Rouge, whose infamous leader, Pol Pot and his cadres instigated the most draconian revolutionary policy in recent history. They drove the whole population out of the towns into the countryside, and set about liquidating those they took to be their enemies. Estimates of the number slain vary between 200,000 and two millions.
A visit to Tuol Sleng – the suburban High School, which served as a detention and torture centre, for men, women and children (all minutely tabulated, just as the Nazis did) – and the infamous Killing Fields, 15 kilometres outside Phnom Penh, where close to 9000 victims were despatched with a blow to the back of the head (to save the cost of bullets) is a profoundly depressing experience. But I would urge it on anyway passing this way. Because, we are all complicit in this.
Anyway, to get to the point, spending half a day at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields leaves you wondering at the sanity of those philosophers who think the human race is perfectible.
But what Yuko Arimori and her team are doing at Angkor; and what Toby Tanser is doing with Shoe4Africa; and what the latest CBC documentary on Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope is doing; and what big city marathons are doing with their charitable fund-raising, all means that many members of the extended distance running community are putting something back into the wider world, in an attempt to make it a better place.
It’s still a long shot, but folks like that might yet prove those philosophers right.
Compliments of the season.