By: Fanny Potkin, Vice Sports News, August 6, 2016
Laos is not known for producing world-class athletes, let alone Olympian cyclists. In fact, the tiny Southeast Asian country known officially as the Lao People's Democratic Republic never makes global sports headlines. It is a placid place of just under seven million squeezed on the map between far more populous and famous countries.
Enter Ariya Phounsavath. At twenty-five, he will represent Laos in cycling at the 2016 Summer Games by competing in Rio's exceptionally arduous road race, a serpentine 256.6-kilometer circuit full of vertiginous climbs. Not only will he become the first Lao rider to make it the Olympics; he is currently the country's only professional international cyclist.
"I have always loved to bike. If I don't practice every day, it stresses me out," he says with a smile. "It's like a smoker not to able to smoke a cigarette. It's the same feeling."
Competitive cycling is rare in Laos, where the generally decrepit and dusty roads are crammed with cars and motorcycles, and where bicycles are seen as the default transport for the poor.
But for Ariya, the love of the sport is a family affair. His father, Willy, a long-time French expatriate in Laos, has for over two decades ran the only serious bike shop in the country's capital, Vientiane. It caters to the country's tiny community of serious cycling enthusiasts, both locals and expats.
"I grew up cycling," said Ariya. "It's in my blood. When I was little, I would see my dad race with his friends. It's always been my passion."
In 2009, Ariya began competing with the Lao national cycling team. He was still in high school at the time.
"Having had a measure of success with cycling made me always push forward to the next challenge," he said, "but it wasn't until 2013 that something clicked,"
That year, he won the gold medal at the Southeast Asian Championships, better known as the SEA Games, a major sporting event that brings together athletes from the region's eleven countries. His dramatic victory, made during the last swoop of the 163-kilometer road race in Myanmar, established him as a name to watch. It also highlighted his abilities as a talented climber.
"After that, I was contacted to go pro," Ariya said. "It just changed my life. I couldn't sleep for two weeks, I was too afraid of waking up and finding out it wasn't true."
He joined the CCN Cycling Team, a pro-continental team then based in Thailand that competed on the Asia Tour for Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport's global governing body. The team's half-season was spent competing in Europe, leading Ariya on to tours in Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and the Netherlands.
Things didn't always go smoothly. At a race in Slovakia, a bad fall left Ariya with a bleeding liver. Hospitalized for several weeks, family and friends crowd-funded his medical costs online.
But the hardest obstacle in Ariya's path might be that he is an athlete from a poor country with little infrastructure to support him.
"Of course, cycling is dominated by wealthy countries," Ariya says. "They have the financial resources and the training structures."
For athletes from developing countries, the challenges of the Olympics start long before the actual Games. It takes years of training to reach peak form, and the more costly the coaching and equipment, the tougher it is for poorer states to support them.
"The bad sides of being an athlete in Laos is that there's a lot of corruption," Ariya says carefully. "The corruption is huge. But it's always been like that."
VICE Sports spoke to several people in Vientiane, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, who said that the International Olympic Committee had allocated Ariya funding to buy his bike and equipment for Rio, but that the money disappeared once it was in the hands of the Lao National Olympic Committee. The cyclist was told he'd have to find sponsors instead.
Transparency International rates Laos in the global bottom quartile in terms of overall corruption, and it is not uncommon for public servants to go months without being paid. As one source told me, "There is just no money in Lao sports." Even the national stadium is overrun by weeds.
Ariya's bike for Rio ended up being sponsored by British manufacturer Factor Bikes, with K2 and Token Equipment stepping in to sponsor the rest of his gear.
Cyclists in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Photo by Doma-W/Wikimedia Commons
In cycling, qualifications to the Olympics are determined by rankings and results on the UCI continental and world tours. Without access to enough elite competitions, it's nearly impossible to break through. Even within the Asia tour circuit, Laos hasn't yet mounted any such event.
So Ariya made it to the Rio road race as a wild card, after the Lao National Cycling Federation submitted his results to the IOC. While in Brazil, he won't have the benefit of a team. Chris Froome, the British winner of the 2016 Tour De France, recently cautioned that the Rio road race was going to be much harder, but altogether as a team, the UK would be "extremely competitive."
Of Laos's six Rio-bound Olympians, Ariya Phounsavath is the only one who has succeeded in being a full-time athlete. The others work day jobs or are still students. For that, he considers himself most privileged.
"For any athlete, Rio is the dream. It's just unreal to be going. I'm proud to be a Lao cyclist. Laos is a developing country, so winning races for Laos is huge," he says. "People are happy with me."
If he has his way, he soon should be joined on the road by other aspiring Lao riders who want to start competing internationally. "I'm in touch online with them. I give them tips on how to train and eat properly."