The Myanmar Times - - Olympics -

ON one side of the cramped out­door pool, chil­dren are tak­ing swim­ming lessons. Op­po­site, an­other group of kids ri­otously splash around. In the mid­dle, a teenager is des­per­ately try­ing to train for the Rio Olympics.

Con­di­tions are hardly ideal for Siri Bud­char­ern Arun, one of just five ath­letes from the poor, com­mu­nist state of Laos trav­el­ling to Brazil.

She will ar­rive as a rank out­sider in the 50-me­tre freestyle, hail­ing from a South­east Asian coun­try which has few sport­ing heroes, and none known be­yond its land­locked bor­ders.

It does not help that she is train­ing in a 25m pub­lic pool – half the size of an Olympic pool – whose deck is strewn with empty beer bot­tles from par­ties the night be­fore.

“I am very proud,” the 14-year-old told AFP, gog­gles in hand and catch­ing her breath af­ter a train­ing ses­sion at the pool in the cap­i­tal Vi­en­tiane.

“We may not be a big coun­try but I want the world to know that we do have swim­mers,” she added.

She spoke as a gov­ern­ment min­der stood nearby, a sign of the au­thor­i­tar­ian state’s tight con­trol on its cit­i­zens.

Olympic glory is nor­mally shared among ath­letes from wealthy coun­tries – or at least na­tions that nur­ture ath­letes with train­ing, sports science and mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties.

But Laos is short of money and ex­per­tise.

Siri Arun and her com­pa­tri­ots go­ing to Rio – a fel­low swim­mer, two field ath­letes and a cy­clist – travel with vir­tu­ally no chance of medal glory.

Aside from the cy­clist, none of the ath­letes has qual­i­fied for the com­pe­ti­tion by right.

In­stead Team Laos has been gifted four wild­card en­tries, to make sure the Games has a truly global rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Myan­mar is in the same boat, with five wild­card en­tries.

“It’s not easy be­cause we do not have the same con­di­tions as oth­ers,” said San­ti­souk In­tha­song, the other swim­mer.

Laos has one Olympic-sized swim­ming pool, but it is rarely used and too far from the cap­i­tal for the ath­letes to reach reg­u­larly.

In­stead, Siri Arun trains five times a week in the pub­lic, city-cen­tre pool, with­out any lanes re­served for pro­fes­sional swim­mers and some­times un­der the mon­soon del­uges that ham­mer Laos.

While she tries to hone her rhythm and tech­nique, kids clown around and launch them­selves off div­ing boards nearby.

So far she has got her per­sonal best down to 33.71 sec­onds, a good 10 sec­onds shy of the world record and a time that is un­likely to see her progress be­yond the early heats.

But she keeps com­ing back, hoping to give her­self the best pos­si­ble chance in Rio. Medal ‘im­pos­si­ble’ While com­mu­nist na­tions are of­ten renowned for heavy in­vest­ment in ath­letic prow­ess, Laos – one of Asia’s poor­est coun­tries – of­fers lit­tle state sup­port for sport.

There isn’t even a nutri­tional pro­gram to keep ath­letes healthy.

Mean­while, pre­cious lit­tle of the wider for­eign in­vest­ment that en­ters the econ­omy, mainly from Viet­nam and China, trick­les down to the pop­u­la­tion.

That means Laos’s hand­ful of ath­letes tend to come from the small mid­dle class who can af­ford to sub­sidise their own train­ing.

Even coaches lack money for train­ing cour­ses, and rely on the in­ter­net for up-to-date train­ing tips.

Siri Arun’s fa­ther works for the UN Chil­dren’s Fund (UNICEF), a job which en­abled her to at­tend an in­ter­na­tional school.

“There are no spon­sors. For our daugh­ter, we pay for ev­ery­thing,” Sen­garun Bud­char­ern told AFP as he watched lov­ingly from the side­lines.

He re­mem­bers his daugh­ter’s first swim­ming vic­tory at a school com­pe­ti­tion.

“She was so proud. At first, we didn’t think she will con­tinue and swim so well,” he said, beam­ing.

In­thara Kasem, who co­or­di­nates the Laos Olympics Com­mit­tee, is re­al­is­tic about his coun­try’s prospects.

“It is im­pos­si­ble for us to win a medal,” he told AFP, adding that his coun­try gen­er­ally hov­ers around the foot of the ta­ble at the re­gional South­east Asian Games.

But go­ing for­ward, the Laos au­thor­i­ties have promised to loosen the purse strings a lit­tle.

Later this year, the gov­ern­ment plans to send ath­letes to Bangkok for sev­eral weeks to train in an Olympic-size pool.

That will come too late for Siri Arun, who says she is sim­ply ex­cited about go­ing to Rio.

And in a sign of her de­ter­mi­na­tion, she’s busy tak­ing self­ies for her Face­book ac­count – flash­ing a “V” for vic­tory in each one. –

Pho­tos: AFP

Siri Bud­char­ern Arun is one of just five ath­letes from Laos who will com­pete in this year’s Games. Train­ing in the poor, com­mu­nist coun­try is no easy task.

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