Cambodian Sports — Athletes With Disabilities Rule!

Circa 2008

‘I thought you said this was disabled volleyball. Oh wow!’

With serves, blocks and spikes zipping around his camera gear, the international wire-service journalist, who had flown six hours to Phnom Penh to cover the 2007 National Standing Volleyball League, couldn’t quite believe that the majority of the athletes on the court were amputee landmine survivors. He was not the first to be shocked by these Cambodian athletes who are now asserting their impressive power on a world stage.


It was in late 2007 that Cambodian disability sport proved to the nation and the world that it had entered the elite level of international competition. After the most hotly contested National League World Championships ever, the Cambodian National Standing Volleyball team won the hearts of its country by taking bronze in the semi-finals against Poland in the historic Volleyball World Cup, held in Phnom Penh.

“The World Cup was a brilliant portrayal of the ability of Cambodian landmine survivors. They are now recognized as the nation’s sporting heroes,” said Christopher Minko, Founder and Secretary General of the Cambodian National Volleyball League Disabled (CNVLD). “The event was a great success for the nation of Cambodia.”

The only annual National Standing Volleyball league in the world consists of 10 teams from around the country including Phnom Penh, Kompong Speu, Takeo, Kratie, Prey Veng, Battambang, Siem Reap and Pailin. From humble beginnings in 1999 in which the first ever Cambodian National Team competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the National League now attracts numerous prestigious sponsors as the CNVLD moves towards its objective of achieving sustainability through corporate sector support. The 2008 National League will be played in the Olympic Stadium for the first time ever, a huge breakthrough for disability sport.

The Stand Up Challenge—an open invitation to any able-bodied volleyball teams who think they can defeat a CNVLD team—is now three years old and has withstood the best efforts of the Australian Defence Forces, the Cambodian able-bodied volleyball champions, the International School of Phnom Penh’s senior team, the elite CTN kickboxers and the Hagar Soya factory team. None have yet come close to beating them.

Preparations are also now underway for the national team’s participation in the November 2008 World Cup in Bratislava, Slovakia, where Cambodia intends to fulfill its objective of taking the No. 1 spot in the world. Coach Christian Zepp leads the charge and is determined to take the gold.

“I’d like to deliver some necessary and new skills to make the athletes strong, tough and fit enough to claim No 1. I want to lead the Cambodian National Team to the finals of the World Cup and win!”

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Despite successes, it’s been a long, turbulent journey for everyone involved as the stakes and the pressures have increased. Cambodia remains an exceptionally challenging environment in which to work, even though the hard-fought-for acknowledgement is finally beginning to pay dividends. The immense strength of sport lies in its essentially apolitical status, and one of the CNVLD’s greatest successes has been its ability to bring former foes into the sports arena.

“The unique and unrivalled power of sport to bridge social and political divides is becomingly increasingly recognized within the post-conflict development paradigm,” says Peter Bartu PhD, formerly of the International and Area Studies Department of the University of California at Berkeley. He has studied CNVLD at length, and posits:

“As a sustainable civil society initiative, inclusive national sports programs serve a multitude of functions from improving individual and national self-esteem and health to a means for post-conflict nations to re-enter the political and economic international community.”

CNVLD’s administrative staff of three—all working as volunteers—manages more than 300 athletes with disabilities. With the support of additional local volunteers, they are able to host various events. About 80 percent of the organization’s income is funnelled directly into supporting the athletes. Strict adherence to financial and operational transparency is not easy, but it has led to the CNVLD being recognized at the highest levels, including receiving a 2006 Best Practices Sport and Development Award from the United Nations and being named a finalist in the 2008 Nike Changemakers Sport for a Better World competition.

The greatest hurdle, however, remains the exclusion of Standing Volleyball from the Paralympic Games since the Sydney 2000 Olympics, a decision which has elicited sharp criticism from developing nations who feel that low-cost, participatory sports are being excluded in favor of those only developed nations can afford to play.

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In tandem with the success of the National Volleyball League and Cambodia’s rapidly improving infrastructure, CNVLD launched a national racing wheelchair program in 2005. In just three years, it has evolved from concept to reality to corporate sustainability through the sponsorship by ANZ Royal Bank.

“The CNVLD approach is light years ahead of the ‘cap in hand’ mentality,” Minko added. Rather than seek out charity, the organization works to convince the corporate sector that Cambodian disability sport has evolved to become an elite level spectator sport.

The ANZ Royal CNVLD Wheelie Grand Prix is now in its second successful year with 27 athletes from six clubs around the country. Roughly a third, or 10 of the 27 athletes are Cambodian women, including five in the Battambang All-Women’s Racing Team who have not only proved to be the leading and most committed athletes in the program but also emerging media stars. A key objective of the Wheelie Grand Prix is to encourage more women with disabilities to participate in sport. Recently, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women issued a report, ‘Women, Gender Equality and Sport,’ in which it singled out the team for being one of the leading examples of promoting the social and economic inclusion of women with disabilities.

At the grass roots level, however, it’s all about the athletes and the impact on individual lives. A recent study by the Sport for Peace and Development International Working Group concluded that “hope is the most important attribute participants gain from the program. Most CNVLD athletes acknowledge that losing a limb made them contemplate suicide but by becoming part of a team, their hope was renewed.”

CNVLD still has a ways to go before it meets its ultimate objectives. Says Minko, “With more than 40,000 persons who are disabled in Cambodia, we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg. It’s merely an issue of resources. We strongly believe that Cambodian athletes who have a disability can take gold medals in a variety of disciplines. It’s taken 10 years to build a solid foundation and we’re only really just getting started.”

by Neil Wilford

Neil Wilford is CNVLD sports programs manager.

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