Cambodia's Olympic Games
on Phnom Penh Pal (Cambodia), 06/Aug/2014 14:04, 34 days ago
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For Claire and I, the jewel in the crown of Phnom Penh is the optimistically named Olympic Stadium. It was actually built for the South East Asian games in 1964 which were then staged elsewhere because the stadium hadn’t been completed in time. For Cambodians, the word Olympic does not really mean anything other than being a reference to multiple sports. And since there are multiple sports played at the stadium, the Olympic Stadium sounds like a fine name.A glorious place for sunsets. This view has changed now; large apartment blocks half built are already towering over the stand opposite. It was designed by the iconicVann Molyvannwhose architecture you can see throughout the city and harks of a Cambodia moving from colonialism to a modern era. Such is his fame that there are architectural tours of various buildings and areas that he has designed. The indoor stadium is cleverly built into the main stand with hundreds of vents allowing air to circulate and light to burst in, and has a water system where rain water is transported around the walls and floor acting as a cooling system.The indoor stadium where people play badminton in the eveningsEvery day, over a thousand people use the stadium as their place for exercise and for hanging out. There will be people running or gently ambling around the track having a natter, whilst on the pitch in the middle, two teams from the Cambodian professional football league might be playing; running back and forth in an often fruitless manner. Where shot putters and long jumpers would be, there will be couples swatting a shuttle cock back and forth– no net is needed.The stars of the show, however, are the throngs of dancers who rim the top of the stadium. They move en masse dutifully following the aerobic dance class leader as large loudspeakers belt out the music. As the evening progresses, the music moves from Korean pop, to traditional Khmer, to Bollywood and on until the music and dancers drift away into the night. The eclectic mix of music, always involving a jazzed up version of Hotel California though, is matched by the range of ages taking part. And even the odd white person can sometimes be spotted. This happens every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset. It is mostly women who do it, but of all ages. When running around the track and looking up at them dance traditionally Khmer, the mass, moving together to a slow rhythm can be a little hypnotic. In the morning, there are also Chinese sword martial art type rhythmic thing. Those pics are on the computer in Oz with Claire though. Sorry!Below the dancers on the steps of the terracing are those who like to sit, gossip and look at the life that is happening around them. They see people running up and down the terracing or doing press ups and sit ups on the steps. The slightly older male and female walkers, flinging their arms in the air, will weave in and out of those sitting as they make their way around the stadium and back again.After all of this exercise, you would be right to expect that Cambodians will be hungry. So of course there are snack stalls selling corn on the cob, meat on a stick, noodles and fried bananas. The healthy addition is the freshly squeezed orange juice, which is undoubtedly the best I've ever tasted.It is behind these food stalls that the Olympic Stadium’s secret lies. Walk through a door in the wall and laid out before you are the Olympic swimming and diving pools. On a weekday after 5pm, you may be privileged to see swimmers who are missing limbs power up and down the pool and at any time you will be entertained by fearless Cambodian youths diving off the 10m board – often more than one at a time. Amazing picshere.50m pool with a separate diving pool at the far end. One length of the front crawl and I'm done for. This is all just within the actual Olympic Stadium. The immediate grounds surrounding the stadium is where you will see old men playing petanque, young bucks playing basketball, children learning tae kwon do, wealthier types serving double faults and footballers scuffling about in the grit and concrete. The largest crowds watch the volleyball though, where a nation of small people defy gravity to slam the ball down with force. As ever, the crowd’s interest is encouraged by the amounts that they have bet.They are seriously skilled at petanque. If you throw it close, without fail the next guy will just whack it away. It is here that the life of Phnom Penh can be felt and one of the few places where the various people of Phnom Penh, rich– poor, young – old, male – female, participant – spectator, share a space and an experience. It is free and open to all. The opportunity to be together is maybe the most valuable thing there could be in a society where division and strains continue.This all may not be enough to save the Olympic Stadium though. It is prime real estate situated right in the middle of the city, and huge developments already engulf and tower over one side of the Stadium. Last year plans announced to develop a modern, multi-purpose sports centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh were met with fears for what it would mean for the Olympic Stadium, especially given that the government actually sold the stadium to a Taiwanese company in 2000.When I was young, the tennis courts of the local school would be swamped with kids itching to dive around like Boris Becker or volley like Navratilova. Every evening for a few glorious weeks in summer, there would be about 20 kids whacking balls about. The gate was sometimes left open and other times, you could crawl under the fence that nobody seriously thought about repairing to keep people out. The fence was more there to keep balls in.Now, the courts have been resurfaced and improved and, because of the investment, was deemed valuable enough to be locked up. There are no kids whacking balls about during a summer’s evening anymore. It is pristine and empty. In the UK, there was a huge focus on how to create a legacy after the Olympics but they couldn’t even work out what to do with the stadium. In Phnom Penh, they may not have had an Olympics but the stadium has created a legacy, just by opening it up for the people to use.Strange people even have bread, cheese and prosecco to celebrate birthdays. Thanks Nicole!Olympic Stadium, we raise a glass to you.Gordon