VIENTIANE, Laos – On one side of the cramped outdoor pool, children are taking swimming lessons. Opposite, another group of kids riotously splash around. In the middle, a teenager is desperately trying to train for the Rio Olympics.
Conditions are hardly ideal for Siri Budcharern Arun, one of just 5 athletes from the poor, communist state of Laos traveling to Brazil.
She will arrive as a rank outsider in the 50 meter freestyle, hailing from a Southeast Asian country which has few sporting heroes, and none known beyond its landlocked borders.
It does not help that she is training in a 25m public pool – half the size of an Olympic pool – whose deck is strewn with empty beer bottles from parties the night before.
“I am very proud,” the 14-year-old told AFP, goggles in hand and catching her breath after a training session at the pool in the capital Vientiane.
“We may not be a big country but I want the world to know that we do have swimmers,” she added.
She spoke as a government minder stood nearby, a sign of the authoritarian state’s tight control on its citizens.
Olympic glory is normally shared among athletes from wealthy countries – or at least nations that nurture athletes with training, sports science and modern facilities.
But Laos is short of money and expertise.
Siri Arun and her compatriots going to Rio – a fellow swimmer, two field athletes and a cyclist – travel with virtually no chance of medal glory.
Aside from the cyclist, none of the athletes has qualified for the competition by right.
Instead Team Laos has been gifted 4 wildcard entries, to make sure the Games has a truly global representation.
“It’s not easy because we do not have the same conditions as others,” lamented Santisouk Inthasong, the other swimmer.
Laos has one Olympic-sized swimming pool, but it is rarely used and too far from the capital for the athletes to reach regularly.
Instead, Siri Arun trains 5 times a week in the public, city-center pool, without any lanes reserved for professional swimmers and sometimes under the monsoon deluges that hammer Laos.
While she tries to hone her rhythm and technique, kids clown around and launch themselves off diving boards nearby.
So far she has got her personal best down to 33.71 seconds, a good 10 seconds shy of the world record and a time that is unlikely to see her progress beyond the early heats.
But she keeps coming back, hoping to give herself the best possible chance in Rio.
While communist nations are often renowned for heavy investment in athletic prowess, Laos – one of Asia’s poorest countries – offers little state support for sport.
There isn’t even a nutritional program to keep athletes healthy.
Meanwhile, precious little of the wider foreign investment that enters the economy, mainly from Vietnam and China, trickles down to the population.
That means Laos’s handful of athletes tend to come from the small middle class who can afford to subsidise their own training.
Even coaches lack money for training courses, and rely on the Internet for up-to-date training tips.
Siri Arun’s father works for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a job which enabled her to attend an international school.
“There are no sponsors. For our daughter, we pay for everything,” Sengarun Budcharern told AFP as he watched lovingly from the sidelines.
He remembers his daughter’s first swimming victory at a school competition.
“She was so proud. At first, we didn’t think she will continue and swim so well,” he beamed.
Inthara Kasem, who coordinates the Laos Olympics Committee, is realistic about his country’s prospects.
“It is impossible for us to win a medal,” he told AFP, adding that his country generally hovers around the foot of the table at the regional Southeast Asian games.
But going forward, the Laos authorities have promised to loosen the purse strings a little.
Later this year, the government plans to send athletes to Bangkok for several weeks to train in an Olympic-size pool.
That will come too late for Siri Arun, who says she is simply excited about going to Rio.
And in a sign of her determination, she’s busy taking selfies for her Facebook account – flashing a ‘V’ for victory in each one. – Rappler.com