translated and edited by Brett Larner
Having taken Cambodian citizenship in a bid to make the London Olympics, comedian Hiroshi Neko (Hiroshi Cat, 34, born Kuniaki Takizaki) was been named to the Cambodian Olympic team in the men's marathon according to a statement from Cambodian Olympic Committee managing director Vath Chamrouen on Mar. 25. An official announcement will be made in April along with the lineup of the Cambodian Olympic team in other sports. Neko's dream is coming true, but his participation in the Olympics after transferring citizenship has sparked debate.
Running headlong in pursuit of the Olympics, Neko's dream has come true. After whittling down the candidates for the wildcard athletics berth to three men and one woman, the Cambodian Olympic Committee evaluated the candidates based on their performances and other criteria in accordance with IAAF procedures. Director Chamrouen gave the decision his blessing, commenting, "He has been diligent and rigorous in his training, and he is qualified to be part of our Olympic team. I look forward to him setting a new PB at the Olympics."
Neko began running after appearing on a TV show which featured a celebrity race. Under the guidance of Susumu Nakajima, coach of Mari Tanigawa and other top athletes, he began regularly improving his times in races. At a December, 2010 half marathon in Cambodia he was good enough to finish 3rd, attracting inquiries from the Cambodian government about the possibility of Neko changing nationalities and going for the London Olympics. "I don't want to be number one in Cambodia, I want to be numpurr one!" he responded.
In November last year he received Cambodian citizenship. The same month he made his national team debut, running a PB at the Southeast Asia Games marathon and then another PB of 2:30:26 at February's Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon. His time fell fall short of the 2:18 Olympic B-standard, but Olympic rules allow countries and territories that have no qualified athletes in any track or field event to enter one male and one female athlete in a special exemption. Neko's entry falls under this category. His pacer at Beppu-Oita, Kaori Yoshida, 30, sent her support, saying, "I think he's probably going to have his share of troubles ahead of him, but it's an honor and I hope he gives it everything he has."
At the time the news of his Olympic team selection was announced Neko was appearing at an event in Shinjuku, Tokyo. He had not yet been contacted directly but told reporters, "Tomorrow I'll be having a press conference to talk about it." Having run his first marathon in 3:48:57 as a celebrity runner at the 2008 Tokyo Marathon, he has now found his way onto the Olympic stage after an unprecedented change of nationality. At the Beijing Olympics Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) won in a record 2:06:32. At that pace Neko could run his best and still be 24 minutes, nearly 8 km, behind. Last among the 76 finishers was Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku) in 2:41:08. Neko's PB would have put him in 70th. He now has 139 days left until the men's marathon on Aug. 12. What kind of polish can he put on his running before the main event?
Translator's note: Although a JAAF official was quoted in November as saying that Neko's late transfer of citizenship was legal because he was not registered with the JAAF, photos are readily available on Neko's own blog of him wearing JAAF-registered division bibs at the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Tokyo Marathons. He may well have not renewed his membership at the start of the 2011-2012 year in April, 2011, but if that is sufficient to exempt him from regulations on transfer of allegiance then it is hard to see why this strategy is not in widespread use elsewhere. Do the regulations only apply to athletes above a certain ability level?
The unofficial confirmation of Neko on the Cambodian team seems to come at the expense of Cambodian national record holder Hem Bunting, who is reportedly in Kenya through the end of the month training for the Paris Marathon in hope of qualifying for London thanks to financial assistance from a Japanese agricultural company. Bunting, whose PB from 2009 is five minutes faster than Neko's recent best, apparently has a fractious relationship with the Cambodian federation and Olympic committee.
It's hard to know what to make of Bunting's circumstances, but either way although Neko's Olympic bid may somehow follow the letter of the regulations it doesn't seem in the spirit of things that IAAF Olympic qualification rule D.6.a is being used to let a popular foreign-born celebrity go to the Olympics, one who is already being used to generate Japanese tourism interest in Cambodia with the support of the Cambodian Olympic Committee, instead of to help develop and motivate a small country's own athletes. It will be very, very regrettable if the worldwide media in London portray Neko finishing half an hour behind the winners the usual way, as a brave act by the lone athlete from a remote country, instead of what it seems to be, a business deal between a government and a foreign celebrity to use the Olympics to promote tourism at the expense of a more talented native athlete.