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Tears for Japanese clown, wanna-be Olympian

Cat gestures, funny jokes and a boatload of money couldn't win Neko Hiroshi a spot on Cambodia's Olympic running team.

Neko hiroshi japan comedian 2012 05 09Enlarge
Neko Hiroshi performs during the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards at Yoyogi National Athletic Stadium on May 27, 2006 in Tokyo, Japan. (Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — For a minute there, it seemed as if a Japanese comedian known for making cat gestures was going to swipe Cambodia's spot in the Olympics marathon event.

Yes, you heard that right.

From the beginning: 

Neko, or "Cat," Hiroshi had never run on the Japanese national track-and-field team because his running skills were “far from the standard,” according to the Japanese Athletic Federation. 

But there's more to getting on an Olympic running team than speed. Or so Hiroshi hoped.

In Cambodia, the academic standards are lower. No athlete in the Southeast Asian country has ever qualified for an Olympic event; those who have participated have done so as a result of a wild-card system used to give developing nations a leg up.

The Cambodian runner who holds the country's marathon record is Hem Bunting (a record that is seven minutes faster than Neko's, mind you). 

At 26, Hem Bunting is lean and fast. He just completed the Paris Marathon in April in 2:23, which is five minutes shy of the Olympic qualifying time, but would have still earned him a wild-card spot. 

But Hem Bunting started to fall out of favor with athletic officials in Cambodia when he began requesting better conditions for the low-funded national team. After leaving the national team in March of last year after his requests went ignored, he went on to train independently and prepare for the Paris marathon at a facility in Kenya’s Rift Valley.

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With Hem Bunting out of the way, it was Neko's show. He moved in fast and sly, like a cat. 

After first appearing in a race in Cambodia in December 2010, Hiroshi contacted Cambodian athletic officials, saying he wanted to be a Cambodian runner, according to Cambodia’s National Olympic Committee. He thereafter donated large sums to Cambodian athletics — including between $20,000 and $30,000 to establish a race in Cambodia’s capital.

In addition to contributing large amounts of cash, Neko was able to acquire nationality with the assistance of Cambodian athletic bodies in October 2011, so that he could represent Cambodia in the South East Asian Games competition the following month.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Neko's newfound home would not make all his dreams come true.

This month, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world's governing body for track and field, ruled that Neko would not be allowed to compete on the Cambodian team since the rules state that athletes with newly acquired citizenship must have been a citizen of the new country for at least a year. Since Neko received citizenship in October 2011, he falls short of the year required before the Olympic marathon in August.

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But before his plan was crushed, Neko spent a little time working on his stride.

He visits his adopted country every month or two for about a week, but can only be reached through his representative in Cambodia. When he is in the country, cameramen follow him as he runs 10 minutes with Cambodian national runners.

More frequently, Neko can be found at home in Japan, where he permanently resides, and where he makes claw gestures and screams a cat-like “nyah!” while surrounded by dancing and singing Japanese girls as can be seen on YouTube.

Soran Happys To Neko Hiroshi - Odore! Soran...
by Hina-Ichigo21

A recent post on Neko’s blog reflects his increasing presence in Cambodia, as it announces that "Hiroshi Cat" is now renamed "Hiroshi Chmar" (cat in Khmer).

Bunting, though already off the team, was vocally displeased.

“I feel I have been cheated, disrespected. I run for my country, and my country chooses this clown from Japan who I beat in a half marathon both last year and this year. The decision is not fair at all, and Cambodians nor Japanese are happy with it. He is not faster than me,” Bunting said in a phone interview while he was training in Kenya. Neko did not have the full blessing of his countrymen. Many Japanese athletic observers condemned his efforts, and Cambodia's welcoming of them, as shameful and unfortunate.

“I’m extremely disappointed, thinking about the feelings of young runners [in Cambodia] who gave up the Olympic seat to a Japanese candidate,” Japanese Olympic marathon medalist Yuko Arimori said of the scandal.

“Cambodian runners have improved their ability despite a poor training environment. I want local athletes to participate [in the Olympics].”

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Bunting is the epitome of one such runner who has achieved impressive performances despite near-squalor training conditions.