Gold for Cambodia: sport, kids and developing nations

Gold for Cambodia: sport, kids and developing nations

The Olympic Games wrap up in a blur of glitz and glam today, but there’s more to sport than celebrating the select few who make it to the highest echelon of sporting achievement every four years. Mel Travis explores how participation in sport brings positive change for kids and communities in developing countries like Cambodia.

When the carnival kicks off today to celebrate the closing ceremony of two intense weeks of sporting prowess, I’ll be thinking of the success stories of the games, for sure, but I’ll also be thinking of something else: say what you will about the Great Games, but sport really does bring people together.

The United Nations promotes sport as playing a huge part in advocacy, development and peace promotion and as a harbinger of social integration and economic development in developing nations. According to the United Nations, “sport has a unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire.” It’s a powerful tool, whether it’s played in a stadium in Rio or an old cow paddock in rural Cambodia.

Sunrise has integrated sport into all of the projects for years now and the effects have been out of this world. Kids at Sunrise have met amazing role models – and become amazing role models. They’ve soaked up important values like sportsmanship, camaraderie, fair play, tolerance and kindness. Having sport as part of a school curriculum has seen school attendance shoot through the roof. And most of all, the kids have had an awesome, fun time playing it. Here’s just some of the ways sport has impacted the lives of kids in Cambodia.

The true value of sport

Growing up in Australia, parents throw their kids into all kinds of sports, because they know the sport teaches kids important life lessons. Respect your team, persevere, be confident not cocky, help out where it’s needed and work together – always. In Australia, these lessons are important.

In Cambodia, they are life changing.

Srey Nouch playing tennis for Sunrise Cambodia

When Srey Nouch (above) took her first swing on the tennis court, she thought she was just playing a game. But she was good. She was noticed. She was invited to a tennis camp in Thailand. She trained with the stars. A girl who was born in a house with one room learnt that where you come from doesn’t define you: it’s the work that you put in to where you want to go that is what makes you who you are. She’s an amazing tennis player but she’s an even better person and sport has been a big part of that.

Math, science, soccer: the holy trinity

Sport and education don’t seem like an obvious combination, but in Cambodia they have become unlikely allies. Halfway through 2015, Sunrise Cambodia began partnering with a public school in Kampong Speu, a rural region to the west of Phnom Penh. The school was struggling with attendance. The kids just weren’t turning up, particularly the girls. And if they did, they weren’t getting as much out of it as they could. Sunrise began extracurricular classes there in the afternoons. English, extra Khmer, and sports – mainly soccer and taekwondo.

“When I began here there were about 100 kids every day.” Said Hem Tola, provincial operation manager of Kampong Speu. “Now, we have 400 kids every day, sometimes more. They stay late for extra classes and they have fun while they are here.”

It’s not the first time sport has been used as a ‘hook’ to get kids to come to school and stay in school. The Closing the Gap report on school attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian youth found that many schools use sport effectively as a method of encouraging Indigenous Aussie kids to come to school. And just like in Australia, it has the added benefit of unearthing some of the country’s best athletes. At Kampong Speu, three of the girls were selected to play for the under 16 Cambodian National women’s team. These girls are champions. They’ve only been playing for a few years and they are already representing their country.

Soccer champions at Kampong Speu
The three smiling faces of champions at Kampong Speu.

In fact, it’s the girls that are benefitting most from the school’s partnership with Sunrise. Chairman Kevin Tutt said that for girls like these it’s the first time they have been valued for their intelligence in school and their prowess on the field. If they weren’t at school, a lot of them would be married already and living a very different life. Over 250 of the 400 students are girls. It could well be sports’ biggest achievement.

Letting kids be kids

Gold medals are all the jam at the moment, but one of the greatest things about sport is that that’s just a tiny part of the goal. Sport, in its most basic form is about having fun, pure and simple.

There are kids at Sunrise who have horrific pasts. Their childhoods were so different to yours or mine that we could live in different worlds. For these kids, sport is part of the healing process and the growing process. It is fun. It is a game that, unlike the rest of their lives, isn’t serious. It’s a way to truly let go, try your hardest and not give a toss when you don’t win. Because winning isn’t everything – it’s how you play the game.

Kids playing soccer at Sunrise Kandal

So well done to the athletes at Rio. You were all amazing. You trained hard and put your heart and soul into every stride, every stroke, every tip, turn, tumble. But when you’re cheering these athletes across the screen, take a moment for the kids of Cambodia and other kids in developing nations all over the world who’s lives are changed by sport in a completely different way. They aren’t winning gold in Rio, but they’re heroes, every single day.

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