Drugs scandal nixes bodybuilding from games

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Cambodian bodybuilders with Sombo Sophorn standing centre. FB

Controversial allegations between the Cambodian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (CBFF) and former World Champion Sambo Sophorn, which led to bodybuilding’s removal from the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, remain unresolved.

Sophorn has filed a lawsuit against national representative bodybuilders Phan Narith and Seang Meng Sang, who have alleged that he encouraged their use of banned substances.

Sophorn – who won a gold medal at the World Bodybuilding and Physical Fitness Championships in 2018 – was accused by CBFF president Tek Bunvy, as well as Narith and Meng Sang, of tricking the duo into using steroids, an allegation he rejected. Their failed urine tests prompted the Cambodian SEA Games Organising Committee (CAMSOC) to remove the sport from the May’s SEA Games.

“Their [Narith and Meng Sang’s] baseless accusations are an attack on my reputation and that of my gym. If they don’t issue a public apology, I have no choice but to seek legal recourse. I am not seeking damages; I only want justice, for the sake of my reputation,” he told The Post.

The two bodybuilders failed drug tests after the 3rd National Games in November last year. In a January 17 press conference, they claimed that they had taken the drugs by accident. When they received injections of a dehydration agent, or diuretic, they were not told it was a banned substance.

Narith claimed that he and Meng Sang went to the former gold medalist Sophorn’s King Gym to seek advice ahead of the national games.

“After demonstrating his own impressive physique, Sophorn suggested that we sleep at his gym the night before the event, because he knew of a special method that would give us an edge over the competition.

“That night he fed us, and told us that we would have to urinate a lot half an hour after the meal. He also arranged for us to be injected with what he said were additional diuretics,” Narith alleged.

He said he also suspected that Sophorn was the one who alerted the anti-doping agency.

“He arranged for us to inject something, and we were the only competitors who were called upon to be tested for drugs,” he added.

Sophorn flatly denied the allegations.

“He [Narith] accused me of inviting them to my gym to use banned substances, which never happened. He came to ask me for advice and opted to stay at my place. As an experienced athlete, I helped him with his weight lifting regime and his diet,” said Sophorn.

“They have accused me of giving them diuretic injections, even though I didn’t do it. They did it on their own, with no coercion from me. Narith has now accused me of plotting with the anti-doping agency, a steroid controller, without any motive. Why would I do this?” he asked.

Sophorn said he suspected that the duo may have intentionally plotted to slander him, as they had never been to King Gym before, but suddenly decided to leave their national coaching team and approach him for help immediately before the games.

“I have a suspicion that it was arranged because Narith had never been to my place and was not close to anyone who trains here. He is a federation athlete, and the federation has expressed its dissatisfaction with me for a long time. When I first went abroad in 2017, they offered no support to me and I trained and funded my own gold medal campaign. I worked very hard to build the image of the Kingdom and the sport, so why would they want to tear me down?” he said.

“I want to make it clear that diuretics and steroids are different. Diuretics are not banned. They are sold in almost every pharmacy in Cambodia, whether in the form of a cream, a pill or an injection. They are often used by people with various urinary tract diseases such as urinary retention. The types of drugs that enhance muscle recovery or boosts muscle tissue growth are steroids. These are different drugs altogether,” he added.

“Every competitive bodybuilder takes diuretics. Some choose to take them orally and some inject them. I used to take them before competing in events, and never felt any side effects. I had no idea they were testing for them at the national games. I thought they would only be testing for steroids, which I have never recommended,” he continued.

CBFF president Bunvy has expressed his faith in the testimonies of his two team members. Although he was once close to Sophorn and his brothers, he believes the former champion is guilty of the allegations.

“The involvement of steroids seriously affects the federation’s reputation. We have worked tirelessly to focus on training our athletes the right way, but the issue of steroid use continues to come up. It is common knowledge that this has been a problem in the past, so why would we engineer a new case when it can only hurt the federation’s image,” he said.

Bunvy, Narith and Meng Sang used the January 17 press conference to call on the authorities to take action against those who import and distribute drugs that are on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) banned list, saying this is necessary to protect the health of the Kingdom’s athletes, especially bodybuilders.

Following this indirect accusation, Sophorn reiterated his denial of knowledge of any steroids.

“People appear to be confused and are somehow under the impression that I imported banned substances from abroad. Once again, I want people to understand that diuretics are available at any pharmacy. We were unaware that the national games had banned their use. All of the international competitions I entered did not test for them, only steroids,” he said.

In a bid to end the dispute, Bunvy invited Sophorn to meet face-to-face with Narith and Meng Sang and two other witnesses – with the federation prepared to act as arbitrator – on January 22. But the offer was rejected by Sophorn, who claimed that the federation had changed the agreed terms of the meeting.

“The federation president has issued a statement asking me to settle this peacefully. On January 19, I agreed, on the condition that I could bring my lawyer and that journalists could attend, in order for the public to learn the truth,” Sophorn wrote on social media.

“The federation agreed, but on the morning of January 20, they resent an invitation insisting I attend alone. I believe they were seeking to solve the problem quietly or sweep it under the rug. As they altered the agreed terms, I did not attend,” he added.

After the failure of both parties to meet and resolve the dispute, representatives of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport may act as facilitators in an attempt to break the deadlock.

The date of the proposed meeting has not been decided, however, as Bunvy is currently abroad.