Japanese-born comedian Hiroshi Neko, barred from representing Cambodia in the marathon at the London Olympics, is under pressure to remain Cambodian for a shot at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Sports are sacred,” said Reika Utsugi, 48, manager of the Japanese women’s national softball team, who changed her nationality from Chinese. “If he switches his nationality back to Japanese, we all know that he just wanted to be in the news.”
Cambodia picked Neko as a member of its marathon team for the London Olympics in March. But the International Association of Athletics Federations disqualified him from representing Cambodia because he obtained Cambodian nationality only in October.
Neko, whose real name is Kuniaki Takizaki, indicated he wants to continue running for the Southeast Asian country.
“I am still bettering my time,” the 34-year-old comedian told a news conference in Tokyo on May 12. “I want to do my best if I have a chance to take part in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics four years ahead.”
Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of Cambodia’s Olympic committee, who accompanied Neko at the news conference, said he expects Neko to take part in the Asian Games and other events as a Cambodian representative.
Neko’s attempt to compete at the London Olympics as a member of the Cambodian marathon team drew criticism from a number of people, including writer Ayako Sono.
“It is too light a decision if he thought that he would be able to enter an Olympics when he became Cambodian,” Sono wrote in a magazine published in March.
Neko himself acknowledged that he changed his nationality without much thought, at least initially. “In the beginning, it was like a topic for my comedy,” he said.
Neko has also emphasized that he is running “as a comedian, not as an athlete.”
He has been traveling back and forth between Japan and Cambodia for his work in Japan, where his family lives.
Utsugi said Neko must understand the importance of his decision to change nationality.
She said she was accused of being a “traitor” by Chinese when she came through with the game-winning hit in a semifinal against China at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Nami Hayakawa, 27, who competed in women’s archery at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after changing her nationality from South Korean, supports Neko’s challenge.
“It is a feat to continue to participate in marathon at age 34,” Hayakawa said. “As long as he changed his nationality, I expect him to continue to run toward the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, without looking back.”
One of his supporters, Dai Tamesue, 34, a three-time Olympic hurdler, said a majority of international track and field athletes are probably thinking that Neko should be allowed to represent Cambodia in London.
In a Twitter message before Neko was disqualified, Tamesue said the world of sports is experiencing globalization, noting that Middle Eastern countries have had African athletes obtain their nationalities.
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