In its 36-year history, Olympic Stadium has been the site of international competitions, historic speeches, training for the country’s premier athletes and a space for residents to relax and play.
But the years have not been kind to the facility. Today, chunks of glass hang from broken windows, knee-high grass surrounds the volleyball courts, and the smell of urine and the sound of bats overwhelm visitors walking up the steps to the indoor arena.
Finally, after years of neglect, the government is studying ways to give the aging sports complex a facelift. But funds are scarce, so the government is reconsidering a scheme initially proposed more than two years ago that would bring in a private-sector partner who will supply cash for renovation in exchange for developing the surrounding area.
The proposal has not been universally embraced within the government. While some officials argue it is the only way the government can afford to give the facility a much needed renovation, others are worried it will spoil one of the city’s most prominent historic buildings.
Private-sector participation in rehabilitating the stadium was first announced by then-National Olympic Committee president and first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in 1997, officials say. Yuan Ta Group of Taiwan expressed interest but put the plan on hold after the factional fighting in July of that year. The company renewed its interest last month, said Council of Ministers economic adviser Soy Sokha.
Yuan Ta Group officials declined earlier this month to comment on the proposed investment. Education, Youth and Sports Minister Tol Lah confirmed the government is considering the project but declined to discuss specifics until studies are completed and the Council of Ministers has made a decision.
The deal being considered, according to people familiar with the discussions, calls for the private firm to sign a long-term lease for the land surrounding the stadium where O’Russei Market sits now. The company would build shopping malls, hotels and guest houses on that property, build a business center at the stadium itself and double the size of the parking lot, says Soy Sokha.
Some officials say the 25- to 30-year lease would net the government about $3 million, which then would be used for repairs to the sports facility.
Everyone agrees that the building drastically needs repairs. The stadium has not been renovated since it was built in 1963 to host the Southeast Asian Games, except for a few donations in the mid-1990s to fix the tennis courts, put in public toilets and install a new scoreboard and goal posts.
Only half of the country’s national teams can train at the complex, said National Olympic Committee Secretary General Meas Sarin, adding that compared to other countries, Cambodia’s stadium only has 20 percent of the facilities it should have.
“The stadium is in bad shape,” agreed Education Secretary of State Pok Than. “The gym can’t be used, the pool is in bad shape. The complex will degrade further without support.”
Despite its condition, the stadium is used for everything from football tournaments to church services. “It is very important for the country,” said Meas Sarin. “It is the face of the country.”
The debate centers on how that support should be provided. Some officials, including the stadium’s designer, Apsara Authority chief Vann Moulyvann, fear the facility’s facade will be significantly altered by a private investor.
“This type of arrangement is absolutely against the rules,” he said. “This national complex is classified as national heritage for Phnom Penh.”
But urban planning professor Chea Sarin noted there is no law on land management and planning in Phnom Penh, although one is being drafted by the Construction Ministry.
Pok Than, who is not directly involved in the negotiations, said to his knowledge only the government, and not the private company, will do work on the sports facility. But he echoed the concern of several people interviewed about the potential impact on the stadium if it is turned into the heart of a busy hotel, apartment and shopping complex.
“I think the addition of this center would make it more crowded,” Pok Than said. “I’m concerned also about what kind of architecture would be used]. If it has high buildings it will look very ugly.”
Rather than surround the stadium with concrete and glass office buildings and shopping centers, suggests one urban planner, the facility’s surrounding area should be turned into a park.
“It should be conserved and the surrounding area landscaped so people can relax there,” said Chea Sarin, a lecturer in urban environmental management at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
What concerns Chea Sarin is the city’s dwindling amount of open space. Only 1 percent of Phnom Penh is green space, he said. While it varies from country to country, the city should be aiming for 4 to 5 percent, he said. More development in the center of town would only worsen traffic congestion, he warned, adding “It will look like Bangkok.”
An inter-ministerial committee that includes officials from the ministries of Education, Public Works, Urbanization and Construction and the municipality, is studying the proposal. From there, it will go to the Council of Ministers for final approval.
Chea Sarin believes, however, that environmental, social and economic assessments should be done before officials decide on the proposal.
But in the end, finances may be the deciding factor. Pok Than said he likes Chea Sarin’s suggestion for the stadium to be the centerpiece of a large park—if the government had money. “But at this stage there is none.” (Additional reporting by Debra Boyce)