In a southeast Asian country torn apart by a long history of war and political struggles and crippled by extreme poverty, a Kinesiology assistant professor is studying how the power of sport can have a profound impact on people and their culture.
Yuhei Inoue, Ph.D., assistant professor in sport management, received a Grant-in-Aid last spring from the Office of the Vice President for Research for a multistage study of the social benefits of a specific sporting event, the 20th Angkor Wat International Half Marathon 2015, held December 6 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.The annual marathon event is organized by the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and the Association of Athletics Federations Cambodia, with the goal to raise funds for its charity partners.
Initiated in 1996, this marathon was the first major international running event to be held in Cambodia. Inoue was introduced to the event by Taku Yamaguchi, an assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, who also serves as a board member for the Hearts of Gold, the event’s main charity partner. The Hearts of Gold is a non-profit organization based in Japan whose mission is to help people who are victims of disaster or living in war-torn areas become self-sufficient.
The international event attracts runners from all over the world, and promotes awareness and raises funding for locally important social causes, such as HIV/AIDS prevention, support for local education, and empowerment of people with disabilities. The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon has a wheelchair division, allowing people with disabilities (such as landmine victims) to participate. Many of Cambodia’s citizens have suffered from the thousands of undetected landmines from past conflicts that continue to maim, injure, or kill.
The first stage of Inoue’s study involved a trip last June to Siem Reap. Inoue conducted interviews with a diverse group of 36 residents, individually and in groups, to determine what social benefits, if any, they perceived in past events and hence would result from the upcoming 2015 event.
“I asked if they were aware of the event, and if they believed it would have economic benefits, as well as intangible benefits, such as creating pride in community,” says Inoue.
He found that a number of respondents believed the marathon would improve the economy and attract tourism, as well as promote social relationships and pride in the community and increase people’s interest in sports. He also found that many were surprised to learn about the marathon’s wheelchair division, since the culture generally does not recognize disabled people as capable of engaging in physical activity or sport.
Back home, working with Kinesiology Ph.D. student Caroline Heffernan, Inoue used the results of the interviews to develop a 64-question survey that would be handed out immediately after the marathon. The process involved analyzing the interview transcripts, developing survey questions in English and translating them into Khmer, Cambodia’s native language, with the help of professional translators. He returned to Siem Reap in early December to attend the race and organize the survey’s distribution and collection. The survey was given to 500 residents across the community, approximately 200 who participated in the race and 300 who did not.
The survey aimed to identify the impact of the event on the community through the eyes of local participants and non-participants alike. What was the overall effect of the marathon on the community? On themselves? Did they think the event would have long-lasting effects, such as creating more interest in sports and community involvement? Did they feel they were more knowledgeable about social issues and causes as a result of the event? Could they identify social and economic advantages for Siem Reap after hosting the marathon?
“This year’s event attracted 8,000 participants, and nearly half of them were local,” says Inoue. “Before this event was started twenty years ago, there was no culture of sport in Cambodia. Now, more and more local people understand the importance of sport participation to maintain and enhance their health and are trying to adopt an active lifestyle. Moreover, increased sport participation comes with the creation of trustworthy and cooperative social relationships, bringing the community together in pursuit of economic and social development.”
Once the survey results are analyzed, Inoue will share them with the event organizers to help in future planning. He also plans to publish a research paper on the social benefits of sport.
“The results of this study will add knowledge to other research projects I have conducted in the U.S., Australia, and Japan, which seek to understand how sport events—both spectator and participant sport events—promote health and well-being in local communities.”