Recreational Access to Olympic Stadium May Be Gone Forever
Perched at the edge of the uppermost walkway inside Olympic Stadium, where the concrete seats begin their descent to a waterlogged playing field, San Kim Han slides up his pant leg to reveal scars and ruts on his calf left behind from a land mine explosion.
He says the leg injury has been nagging him for 17 years. But four months ago he started walking around the inside of the stadium in the afternoons, and the exercise helped to get the blood in his legs circulating, alleviating the chronic pain.
“When I’m exercising everyday, I wake up in the morning and there’s no pain,” says San Kim Han. “My neighbor told me to come to Olympic Stadium to walk, and now my entire body feels healthier.”
Almost anytime during the day, motorists and vendors on the streets near Olympic Stadium can watch hundreds of athletes walking, jogging, sprinting and jumping as they practice a host of physical activities around the stadium arena. Especially during early morning and late afternoon, local residents from teens to elders transform the drab, concrete area encircling the main structure into a vibrant display of athletic prowess and social intermingling, unrelenting even during periodic downpours.
Although the stadium is Cambodia’s preeminent sporting facility and home to most national federations, it is the capital’s recreational athletes who define Olympic Stadium, pouring into the expansive complex every day to play football, volleyball, basketball, petanque, tennis, tae kwondo and more.
“Angkor Wat is to Siem Reap as Olympic Stadium is to Phnom Penh,” the capital’s governor, Chea Sophara, says. “It’s for everyone.”
Local residents like San Kim Han, who collects cans, bottles, newspaper and steel from the city streets, have for years easily mixed with the federation members.
But with the stadium’s closure this week for renovation and development, some of the capital’s recreational athletes are beginning to wonder what will happen when it disappears behind construction blockades.
While officials say the stadium will be closed for just one year, those who use it worry that when it reopens the now faint line separating locals who exercise and play casually from organized federation players will become more pronounced—with federation members benefiting from sleek, new facilities, and others like San Kim Han being left on the sidelines.
“I hear that they will close the stadium,” said San Kim Han, right before its closing. “Nobody knows about the details, if it will close for good or if we will be allowed to come back. All we know is that it will close and that [other facilities] are far from here.”
The Ministry of Education’s Physical Education and Sports Department, the office responsible for drafting post-renovation rules, says a new set of rules will govern the area, although details have yet to be determined.
“After the stadium is repaired, we must have new management rules to keep it beautiful,” says Yem Oddom, director of the department. “We have a new plan to charge money for people using the stadium, but it’s still just an idea.”
The plan to build a new fence around the stadium has been an indicator for some that public access to the facilities will be restricted in the future. Local residents like San Kim Han, who says he nets an average of 6,000 to 10,000 riel a day collecting bottles and cans to recycle, say if they are charged entrance fees, they will be forced to seek other exercising options.
But there are few alternatives.
San Kim Han says that some of his neighbors have talked about using the Old Stadium, across town on the other side of Boeung Kak lake, but shakes his head at its distance from the area around Olympic Stadium where he lives.
“After friends and neighbors told me the stadium would close, I began to repair my bicycle to maybe ride to the Old Stadium,” San Kim Han says. “But when I have to ride far, my leg hurts. I might just get up earlier and walk outside my house, but I might just have to stop.”
For most of these amateur athletes, the money or time lost commuting to alternate facilities outside their neighborhood would hinder their exercise routines.
Yet most of the stadium regulars seen ardently kicking around the football and shooting baskets say they would forgive the temporary hassles associated with the closure in exchange for a guarantee that the stadium will remain free and open to the public after renovation.
That pledge, however, has not been forthcoming from the government. And Phnom Penh’s governor says he doesn’t expect one anytime soon.
“I am 100 percent sure that the average people who play there now won’t be allowed back in,” says Chea Sophara, who adds that he wouldn’t be surprised if the stadium remained closed for two or three years.
The governor says he supports improvements at the stadium, but complains that the renovation and development scheme—to be carried out by Taiwanese company Yuan Ta Group, which signed a contract two months ago with Prime Minister Hun Sen—has for the most part been closed to public scrutiny.
Bou Chum Serey, Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Education defends the proposed project, which includes the construction of hotels, shops and a parking deck. He maintains that his ministry has no plan to restrict public access to sporting facilities after the project is complete.
“If I am still in my current position, I will ask for all people to have access to the facilities,” says Bou Chum Serey. “It doesn’t damage anything to have them playing on the compound.”
Others point out that some degree of restriction on public access is inevitable.
The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia notes that the public was only permitted to use the nearly 40-year-old stadium for exercise after 1979.
The new rules governing the stadiums, committee officials say, should follow the same rules governing national stadiums around the world that also restrict the public from use.
Before 1975, “the stadium rules didn’t allow anyone to play there, except people training for international, professional competition,” says Chhuon Leng, Secretary of Cabinet of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia. “Not just anyone should be allowed to go in to exercise and play sports. It’s no good if people can go inside and destroy the grass and facilities after they have been fixed.”
Chhuon Leng blames the lack of public exercise venues on the increased exclusivity of universities and other private facilities.
“I admit that there is no other place like the stadium for the people to go,” says Chhuon Leng. “But it’s the government’s responsibility to arrange and organize other places for these people to practice.”
Most see the neighborhoods around Phnom Penh, with their lack of sidewalks and abundance of motor bikes and potholes, as inadequate arenas for practicing sport. Other than Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh’s two most popular public gathering spots are the waterfront park along Sisowath Quay and Hun Sen Park opposite Independence Monument at the end of Sihanouk Blvd—neither of which have sporting facilities or fields.
“We are worried about what will happen after the repair,” says Ma Sak Sinorng, a 45-year-old amateur basketball player who’s been using the stadium to play for eight years.
“If they close here we don’t know where we will go… Some of the schools around here have basketball courts, but we don’t know how to approach the administrators. We are just ordinary people.”