Last October, Japanese comedian Hiroshi Neko was naturalized as a Cambodian citizen with hopes of representing the Southeast Asian nation at the London Olympics in the men's marathon.
But on May 9, the Cambodian Olympic Committee told the 34-year-old Neko it was a no-go. A disappointed Neko said he plans to get more detailed explanation from the Olympic committee and hold a news conference soon.
An increasing number of athletes around the world are changing nationalities to compete at the Olympics or world championships.
In track and field, oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are increasingly giving economic benefits to African runners to obtain citizenship in the Middle East in order to quickly produce results.
There have long been nationality-switching regulations pertaining to athletes who had represented their home countries at international competitions.
But many athletes with top-class skills have never represented their home countries. These athletes have been invited to obtain citizenship in numerous countries.
To put a stop to this kind of “athlete buying,” the International Association of Athletics Federations introduced the “one-year rule” this year in which athletes must wait until a year after obtaining citizenship or live for 12 consecutive months in the country in order to represent a country at international competitions.
Neko, who is far from a top-level athlete that can contend for a medal, switched nationalities using a special quota for countries that have no other athletes who meet the standard time required to make the Olympics.
The IAAF apparently did not anticipate a case of nationality-switching like Neko's, but the organizing body has applied to the one-year rule to his light-hearted nationality-switching.
Last year, a senior official of the Cambodian Olympic Committee came to Japan before Neko finished his paperwork for obtaining Cambodian citizenship. The official held a news conference with Neko and expressed his support for the comedian-turned-athlete.
Last fall, at the Southeast Asian Games, which Cambodia designated as an Olympic selection meet, other Cambodian marathon runners who had initially registered to enter the race pulled out.
This is probably not unrelated to the fact that Japanese firms supporting Neko had become sponsors of the Phnom Penh Half Marathon, which the Cambodian Olympic Committee organized last year.
Meanwhile, the Cambodian Olympic Committee did not even consider other promising candidates for the London Olympics.
Hem Bunting--Cambodia’s leading marathon runner who represented the nation at the Beijing Olympics and who runs the marathon in better time than Neko--was not considered based on reasons such as “bad behavior.”
Now that Neko’s Olympic dream has been dashed, it remains to be seen which runner--if any--will represent Cambodia in the Olympics.
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