VIENTIANE – The sun is setting over the scruffy outdoor stadium as Kilakone Siphonexay, the fastest man in Laos, lies on the home-made, wooden weights bench, raises both arms and grips the scaffolding pole above.
On either end of the metal spar, paint-tins filled with concrete serve as weights, forming a makeshift barbell to hone the muscles of the poor, Southeast Asian country’s leading Olympic hope.
“There’s no weights room,” says the thin, bespectacled 100 metres sprinter with an apologetic smile, before pumping some quick bench-presses aided by his coach.
When it comes to the Olympics, there are the strong nations, the less good, the weak and the abject. Communist Laos is in the last category. But with facilities like this, it’s hardly a surprise.
The landlocked country, which was extensively bombed during the war in neighbouring Vietnam and ranks as one of the world’s poorest states, has not only never won an Olympic medal — it hasn’t even come close.
In an Olympic history stretching back to Moscow 1980, no Laotian competitor has ever made it past the first round, where required. Success at the London Olympics would be easily defined: not finishing last.
“We’re not strong like the USA or the British,” chef de mission Kasem Inthara tells AFP, as he sits in a dingy stadium office. “We’re in a group like Brunei or East Timor. We’re a small country.
“If we can beat only one country in the first heat, that would be a success.”
Even getting to London is a victory after not one Laotian qualified for the 2012 Games by right, leaving them relying on wildcards to compete in athletics and swimming.
For Kilakone, 23, it’s a lucky break after he missed the 100m qualifying time of 10.24 seconds, already snail-like compared to Usain Bolt’s world record of 9.58 sec. The personal best of Kilakone, Laos’s national champion, is 10.73.
“I like to train hard,” he says. “In London, I would like to try my best to beat my personal record. But we’re still lacking weight training. I need weight training and equipment.”
Kilakone, wearing an Arsenal football team shirt and tight running trousers, trains for three hours each evening in Chao Anouvong Stadium, an ageing facility in the heart of the capital, Vientiane, which dates back to pre-communist 1961.
Vandalised advertising hoardings are strewn on the floor and children noisily chase a football as Kilakone jostles for space on the track with dozens of other amateur enthusiasts on a warm, sticky evening.
For Kilakone, and female 100m hopeful Lealy Phoukhavont, 16, who will also compete in London, it’s a simple routine consisting mainly of sprinting and acceleration work. Weight training is minimal; specialist nutrition, non-existent.
“They don’t eat anything special. They eat with their families,” says coach Chaleunsouk Aoudomphanh, who seems surprised at the question. Kilakone says he eats “local food — sticky rice and vegetables”.
Chaleunsouk himself shouldered the hopes of Laos at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he ran his 100m heat in a disappointing 11.30 — a time he still remembers with a rueful shake of the head.
Now he trains Kilakone and Lealy as a part-time volunteer, in between the demands of looking after his newborn daughter and helping run a small business at a Vientiane market.
“I take standard training courses and modify some parts of them,” explains Chaleunsouk, who has coaching qualifications with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
According to chef de mission Kasem, the challenges facing Laos’s athletes are simple: no facilities, few competitions, and the weather is very hot. Plus, the people are too short, he says.
“Even in the Southeast Asian Games we can’t get medals from swimming and athletics because if compared to the morphology of more talented people, we are short! Shorter than the others,” says Kasem.
While such problems are not easy to fix, more money would help. However, with Laos aid-dependent and lacking major industry, grants and sponsorship are not forthcoming.
Laos students have sports on their curriculum, but many schools have no facilities. And there are few opportunities for athletes — just the national, military, police and university games which are held in rotation, one per year.
Kasem has been ever-present in Laos’s Olympic campaigns since he went to Moscow 1980 as a coach.
“We just like to participate, we don’t expect to get a medal,” he shrugs. “If we can’t develop to the top ranking, we can’t compete.”
If only petanque were an Olympic sport, things might be different. Laos is a gold medal winner at Southeast Asian Games level in the popular bowling game, a legacy of French colonialism.
Until that day, the Laos’s Olympic dream rests with Kilakone, Lealy, Chaleunsouk and their home-made weights in the sweaty, crowded Vientiane stadium.
Next to the paint-tin barbell, which weighs “about 20 kilos (40 pounds)”, lies a heavier challenge: another scaffolding pole, but this one attached with two concrete-filled car wheels. The coach and athletes shake their heads.
“We hope we can get more equipment,” says Chaleunsouk.