Bou Samnang Missed Southeast Asian Games Race But Won Praise

Runner number 401 was dead tired and had low blood pressure. She was also last by a wide margin in the 5,000 meters and trudging alone, in a raging storm, around the runway of an almost empty stadium.

Bou Samnang, 20, finished the race anyway.

His performance in the rain at the Southeast Asian Games – this year’s edition was held this month in his native Cambodia – would have been a footnote in a tournament that is unknown to most sports fans outside the region. But when the video circulated widely on social media, she became an unlikely national celebrity.

“I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I told myself I shouldn’t stop,” she said in an interview.

As she struggled, it helped that a small group of supporters applauded furiously, she added, and she felt duty-bound to finish because she was representing her country.

Bou Samnang, who graduated from high school last year, did not expect to attract international attention when he arrived on May 8 for the 5000 meters final in Phnom Penh, the capital and his hometown. She was grateful just to be competing.

A few weeks earlier, Mrs. Bou Samnang had suffered from a particularly severe bout of low blood pressure, the result of his chronic anemia, while training in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming. A doctor told her to stop running for a while, and her trainer, Kieng Samorn, didn’t insist otherwise.

“She has a health problem,” said Kieng Samorn. “We cannot force her.”

But Bou Samnang said she was looking forward to playing at the Southeast Asian Games, her first international competition, and her coach didn’t stop her.

In the women’s 5,000 meters final, held in a 60,000-seat stadium with little attendance, Ms. Bou Samnang gathered at the starting line alongside some of the best runners in the region. The eventual winner, Nguyen Thi Oanh of Vietnam, is an Olympian who has won several gold medals at previous Southeast Asian Games.

After the starting gun sounded and the runners fell into formation, Mrs. Bou Samnang took up a position at the back of the pack. In about a minute, she was so far behind that she was not visible in much of the television coverage.

But she continued, even when Mrs. Oanh and other runners finished, the heavens opened and some fans lost interest.

Mrs. Bou Samnang would finish in 22 minutes and 54 seconds – almost six minutes behind Ms. Vietnam’s Oanh and about 90 seconds behind a compatriot, Run Romdul. By this time, the stadium floodlights were already off, water was pooling on the track, and her pink shoes and red uniform were completely soaked.

His performance was reminiscent of other runners who persevered, including some who won running events after falling. One of them is Sifan Hassan, from the Netherlands, who did it in the 1,500 meters event at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago.

Runners don’t tend to win a lot of praise if they lose by a wide margin. One exception is long-distance races, where it’s common to celebrate the last one to finish, said Steve Brammar, secretary general of the Hong Kong Track Runners Association. An ultramarathon race he runs there has an “Ultimate Finisher” trophy for just that purpose.

Bou Samnang’s “perseverance was inspiring and really seems to have warmed hearts and captured the imagination,” Brammar said in an email.

After finishing last in the 5,000 meters this month, Bou Samnang’s health prevented her from running the 1,500 meters as planned, her coach said. But after video of her determined performance circulated online, she received public praise from the King of Cambodia and a $10,000 bonus from Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, equivalent to several years of average Cambodian earnings.

Mrs. Bou Samnang, whose father died in 2018, is the third of four children. She said she would use the bonus to study law at a Cambodian university and that she planned to continue to apply.

Her mother, Mai Met, said she cried when she learned that her daughter had finished last in the 5,000m race. But this sadness was mitigated by the popular support that followed.

“I’m delighted,” said Mai Met, 44, who has long supported her family by working in garment factories.

His determined finish illustrated an “ideal of sport,” said Edgar K. Tham, a sports psychologist in Singapore who works with athletes in Southeast Asia.

He said the attention Bou Samnang has received is notable in part because Cambodian athletes tend to do better in combat sports than track events in regional competitions.

But the example she set, he added, will reverberate far beyond Southeast Asia.

“That’s what life is all about: moving forward and using failures as lessons to bounce back from,” he said. “If you take it in that spirit, it’s inspiring.”

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