• Dr Nary Ly will be Cambodia's first long distance Olympic runner (Cambodian Olympic Committee)
Cambodia's Nary Ly is making history as she challenges perceptions about women in sport in her home country
By
Sophie Verass

Source:
Zela
19 Jul 2016 - 3:13 PM  UPDATED 19 Jul 2016 - 3:48 PM

At 42 years old, athlete Nary Ly is one of the oldest Olympians competing in Rio in August.

But her age isn't the only thing that makes this impressive runner so significant. Ly will be Cambodia’s very first female long-distance runner to compete in an Olympic Marathon.

In December, Ly recorded a personal best of 2 hours and 59 minutes in the Valencia marathon, an achievement for any runner - especially someone who does not come from an athletic background nor has had the specialised training.

“I am not an athlete. I’m a scientist, so I started really late to run,” Ly told BBC. “This is different from others [athletes], I don’t really know anything about running.

“I learned through a running club when I was in New York when I was doing my post doc ... But I’ve never had a personal coach."

“I learned through a running club when I was in New York when I was doing my post doc ... But I’ve never had a personal coach.”

Ly escaped Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge when she was 9 years old. She grew up and was educated in France, living with a caring foster family. She returned to her home country when she was in her mid-20s, and when visiting her family and being exposed to their hardship of living in a place without the education and privileged opportunities that Ly herself had in France, encouraged her to give back to her country in some way.

But her participation in the Olympics isn't just about patriotism or for the love of sport. Ly told the BCC that she wants to achieve her own personal goals.

“When you are 43 or 44, people usually say, ‘Okay, you’re too old’, but it’s amazing, I’ve discovered myself and how my body can provide me with an amazing ability physically.

“The first time I ran a marathon I did 3 hours and 30 minutes and I remember thinking, I’m going to die! It’s not possible for me to do [under] 3 hours! But since my first marathon six years ago ... Yes, I get older and my time is getting faster,” she says.

For a woman to be representing Cambodia, particularly for something as gruelling as long distance running, Ly has achieved a milestone in a nation whose perceptions of women in sport is still very conservative.

“In Asia, a lot of women, they like to have white skin like milk, having dark skin means that you are working in the country side,” Ly says. “So when you are more white - this is the more beautiful [beauty standards]

"...now that the country [Cambodia] is more developed, people are starting to do more more. But being a top athlete for a female … It’s starting very slowly.”

“And running outside, you know you have no a good skin for your face, so you might have a black spot or you become skinny, so it’s not very beautiful for an Asian woman. But now that the country is more developed, people are starting to do more more. But being a top athlete for a female … It’s starting very slowly.”

During her Olympic journey, Ly hopes to she can influence other girls to follow in her steps. However, as the challenge of Rio looms over her, she is currently focusing on her personal goal - “just to reach the finish line”.


 

For all the latest #WomenInSport articles, videos and updates at SBS Zela like us on Facebook and Twitter