Cambodia has never won an Olympic medal, but at this year’s games in London, the country will try to break the streak with some Korean help.
Two of Cambodia’s Olympic hopefuls have Korean coaches - one from the South and one from the North.
Chov Sotheara is one of only a few Cambodian athletes who could qualify for the London Olympics. Driven to win in a sport dominated by men, she says her strict North Korean coach, Pak So Nam, gives her an edge, despite the language barrier.
“We use sign language," Chov said. "In this sport there are hand signals and grabbing. So, he shows us each movement and then all of us just follow him. And, if we make mistakes he corrects us.”
Pak is known for a relentless coaching drive that leaves little time for outside activities. Although he has lived here for several years, he speaks little Khmer or English. But his team loyalties, and those of his North Korean assistants, are firm.
“You ask me whom I want to win if my athletes compete with North Korean athletes. Personally, I think, even between parents and a son, it is still a competition in sports games. So I want the athletes who I train to win,” Pak said.
The team has bonded, despite the language barrier. Sotheara said she loves her coach like a father. When North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il died in December she and the rest of the team supported the coach.
“He was depressed," she said. "He went to pay condolences at the North Korean embassy next to the prime minister's house. Our wrestling team was also mourning and took flowers to the North Korean Embassy.”
The team’s Cambodian coach, Hok Cheeangkim, said Pak initially needed to tone down his occasionally violent coaching style that treated the athletes like soldiers. Nonetheless, Hok credits him with Sotheara’s gold medal in Laos at the 2009 Southeast Asian Games.
“North Korea is at the Olympic level," said Hok. "They won all the medals-gold, silver, bronze. Both North Korea and South Korea are strong, but North Korea is stronger.”
(photo credit: VOA - Daniel Schearf)
Training right next to the North Korean instructors for the past six years is South Korean Taekwondo coach Choi Yong-suk.
Choi said while there is sporting competition between him and the North Koreans, they share a desire to push the Cambodian team.
“Sports mean unity," he said. "So, we do not consider such things as political ideology. I think there is no problem for us to have a good relationship since we are sportsmen training within the same environment.”
Choi is also training an Olympic hopeful, Sorn Davin, who said that unlike Sotheara, she would not want to be coached by North Koreans because they are communists. But she does not mind sharing the gym.
"Each team tries not to be weaker than the other, so it is quite competitive because we are training next to each other and our categories are quite similar," she said. "So, we try to be stronger."
With five months to go until the start of the games, these athletes are still waiting to see if they will qualify. Sorn Davin is waiting for a wildcard Taekwondo spot. Sotheara hopes a win in Kazakhstan later in March will earn her a spot in London.
VOA Khmer Service Correspondent MonySay and Cameraman Zinlat Aung contributed to this story.