Every evening just before sundown, the sky glows in central Phnom Penh and throngs of people gather on the elevated perimeter of Olympic Stadium, waving their arms in the air and stepping in time.
If it weren’t for the blaring dance music emanating from a nearby amplifier one might think the crowds were invoking the spirits of a bygone time.
As it is, they are there for a bit of fresh air and some aerobics-cum-line dancing exercise at one of the city’s only outdoor exercise facilities, albeit a slightly dilapidated one.
“I come to stay healthy,” said Ith Seng, 65, who takes part in the upbeat ritual at least four times a week. “I like the fresh air and it lowers my blood pressure,” he said without missing a step.
Though rundown and surrounded by haphazard development, the National Olympic Stadium Complex is still an impressive reminder of the optimistic age from which it emerged.
A stagnant pool of foul-smelling putrid water where thoughtless construction has encroached on the drainage system greets visitors who approach the complex from Sihanouk Boulevard. But if one looks beyond, the majestic lines of the stadium rise up from a graceful plane created from earth—not concrete, the mode of the day—just as they did for the temples of Angkor, upon which the stadium is conceptually modeled.
Renowned architect Vann Molyvann, who views the creation of the roughly 40-hectare complex as the pinnacle of his career, remembers when crowds gathered on the stadium’s upper rim for its inauguration in late 1964.
“It was a very emotional time for us all,” he said, describing how 100,000 people packed into the 60,000-seat stadium to hear then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s address.
“He had a speech prepared, but he threw it away and improvised completely,” recalled Vann Molyvann.
Fireworks popped. Troops marched. At one point, Vann Molyvann said, organizers turned off the floodlights and everyone in the crowd struck a match, filling the stadium with tiny specks of hopeful flame.
The stadium complex was controversial at its inception. Many thought that the money—which came almost exclusively from Cambodia’s own funds—could be better spent in a newly self-reliant country.
But it was also a time of contagious enthusiasm—something apparent in Prince Sihanouk’s confident speech, which congratulated Cambodia on its “achievements and progress in all fields” since winning independence in 1953.
“We have certainly shown to the world that we are not a bastard nation deprived of intelligence, courage and energy—as the enemies of our country and people have often pretended,” Prince Sihanouk said, apparently referring to the US and its allies engaged in the Second Indochina War.
According to Yem Oddom, Ministry of Education sports department director, everyone regards retired King Sihanouk as the “father of national sports,” perhaps largely because he called for the stadium’s creation in 1962 prior to the Southeast Asian Olympics and was “present at every phase of the project,” according to Vann Molyvann.
Though it never hosted the Southeast Asian Games for which it was scheduled in 1963, the stadium became a symbol of Cambodia’s boldness and coming of age in the post-colonial 1960s.
In 1966, the stadium hosted the World Games of the New Emerging Forces, known as Ganefo, which gathered athletes from the world’s “non-aligned” countries—those that opposed the Cold War. That same year, French President Charles de Gaulle lauded Cambodia’s neutrality during a famous speech at the stadium that called for peace in Indochina.
Now, it is primarily the informal groups of athletes, fitness folk and regular citizens trying to stay healthy and have a good time that characterize the stadium’s purpose in today’s Cambodia.
Practically every weekend, there is a football match in the outdoor stadium. Martial arts, boxing, wrestling, volleyball, tennis, petanque and swimming all take place on the grounds. The parking lots see regular pick-up games of football and badminton.
The stadium is a “public building for public use,” said Yem Oddom, though he added that the sports sector in Cambodia does not play the crucial role it did in the 1960s, something evidenced by the stadium’s worn appearance.
“Today’s management at the stadium is weak,” he said, adding that athletes are also not as well trained as they used to be.
He said the facilities are open during the day free of charge, though parking and formal use of the stadium cost money. Aerobics and use of the swimming pool is a few hundred riel per session.
Squatters have been seen setting up temporary homes at the complex and individuals sometimes informally charge for “tickets” at the main gate—despite the fact that the facility is open free of charge from 4:30 am to 7 pm, according to the ministry.
Vann Molyvann smiled at the notion of people assembling at the complex for jogging, aerobics and swimming.
“It is their own property,” he said. “It belongs to the people.”
However, for an architect who believes that a structure should purely show its function, the botched private developments around Olympic Stadium is particularly offensive.
In 2000, the Taiwanese firm Yuan Ta Group was awarded a contract to renovate the stadium in exchange for the land surrounding it.
“I don’t like to go there now because of the building all around,” Vann Molyvann said. “I don’t want to suffer.”
Architect and urbanist Helen Grant Ross said she is glad people are getting some use out of the structure.
“I like to see it being used because I know it’s being remembered by the people of Phnom Penh. They do seem to respect it. They don’t put [graffiti] tags all over the place…. They haven’t ripped out the seating,” she said, musing that an abandoned stadium in the US or Europe would be dismantled and vandalized in short order.
“I do worry that it will suffer from deterioration over time,” she said, adding that she would like to see the complex being used primarily for its intended purpose.
“It needs a lot of repairing, but it could be used for big meetings, music concerts and sporting events…if the government decided to integrate it as part of the public domain…renovate it, and promote it as a venue for world events,” Grant Ross said.
“It’s the best facility in the whole of Southeast Asia,” she said, comparing it to Parc des Princes in Paris and London’s Wembley Stadium. “It could be an icon on which to build a new image. It was once and it could be again. It could be a Wembley. It could put Cambodia back on the map.”