Carefully aiming and throwing a shiny petanque ball on a Phnom Penh pitch, Douch Sapoeun and her fellow athletes prepare for an upcoming match abroad. The women have been invited to compete in Vietnam in September and the annual Asian petanque championships in Laos in December.
“We train and train,” Douch Sapoeun said in a recent interview.
Cambodian petanque throwers win, and win often. But the professional options for women in the sport are limited. So too are their numbers.
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport estimates that of 259 competitive Cambodian athletes across 20 sports, only 54 are women. (In petanque, 11 of 22 athletes are women.) There are none in boxing, volley ball, football, badminton, cycling or archery.
That may be because many women think sports are mostly for men, said Vath Chamroeun, general secretary of the National Olympic Committee. “They think that playing sports provides no benefit,” he said. “Muscles appear in the long term, making them shy and stop playing more.”
However, some women excel in sports. Chov Sotheara, a wrestler, took bronze medals at the Southeast Asian Games in 2003 and 2005, followed by a gold in 2009.
She started judo when she was 14, and six years later turned to wrestling. She said women should be encouraged to take up sports.
“Women foreigners play a lot of sports,” she said. “It's different from here, where very few women play sports because they are shy.”
There are those who think not all sports are suitable for women. Take Ly Kimnay, for instance. She sells sugar cane juice outside Olympic Stadium. Sports like taekwondo, volleyball, football or anything requiring jumping should be off limits, she said. “But soft petanque is OK.”
Most Cambodian athletes only compete regionally. The National Olympic Committee says only three athletes have been chosen to compete abroad; one is a woman.
Nevertheless, women have a high success rate when they do compete, Vath Chamroeun said. In the 2009 SEA Games in Laos, for example, fewer women competed than men, “but a woman earned a gold medal, and a man didn't.”
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport encourages girls to play in school, said Lack Sam Ath, director of the ministry's sports department. “Especially by creating female football teams to play in school and have competitions.”
Women like Rath Chenda, an English student at Pannasastra University, say more participation could raise the quality of sports in Cambodia in general. But that can only happen when Cambodian families allow their daughters to play. Even then, there's no guarantee that they will play beyond school.
Sok Pheary, a classmate of Rath Chenda, said women should be involved in sports just as they are in neighboring countries.