Believe it or not, the tiny city of Phnom Penh in developing Cambodia has its own Olympic Stadium, although the summer games were never held here. Also referred to as the National Sports Complex, Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium can seat 50,000 people, but may be expanded to accommodate up to 80,000.
So, what is an Olympic Stadium doing in Phnom Penh?
Designed by Vann Molyvann, the well-known Cambodian architect, the stadium was completed in 1964 and was constructed to supposedly house the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games. However, the games did not push through because Cambodia had disagreements with the International Amateur Athletic Foundation. Cambodia was also then slowly drowning in its own sea of political problems. The expensive stadium was never used for what it was originally intended.
In 1966, the stadium was finally used for the short-lived Games of the New Emerging Forces or GANEFO Games. Indonesia established the GANEFO to rival the Olympic Games, an ambitious endeavor that drew support from newly independent socialist states. The anti-Olympics games did not go beyond 1966. The GANEFO in Phnom Penh was held on November 25 to December 6, 1966. Other than that, the stadium’s other uses were to host visiting dignitaries, national celebrations, and as training ground for Cambodia’s national athletic teams.
The stadium did play a small part during the 1966 FIFA World Cup that was held in England from July 11-30. In that decade, North Korea still tried to participate in a few world events and the FIFA World Cup was one of them. Surprisingly, North Korea reached the qualifying rounds and needed to compete against Australia. However, nobody wanted to host North Korea. This communist country did not have diplomatic relations with most of the member-countries of FIFA except Cambodia. Norodom Sihanouk, then Cambodia’s head of state, told Kim Il-sung that the match could be held in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. Finally, the stadium received international recognition but the rest of the world did not really watch that particular FIFA qualifier. The stadium was filled with 40,000 Cambodians, perhaps the largest sporting event in the country until today. Sihanouk commanded that half of the crowd should cheer for Australia and the other half for North Korea.
The competitions were held from November 21-24 and the North Koreans won. They automatically moved to the quarterfinals because South Korea and all African teams abandoned the games in protest against FIFA for allowing North Korea to join.
A decade later, during Pol Pot’s short but horrendous reign from 1975 to 1979, the stadium took a dark turn. It was used to by the Khmer Rouge army to execute administration officials.
The following decades saw the stadium beginning to crumble to pieces until it was refurbished by the Taiwanese. It has had its few moments of glory since then: in 2007, Ronan Keating came to perform here and until today was the only major international artist to ever hold a concert in Phnom Penh; in the same year, the World Organization Volleyball for the Disabled came here for their World Cup; and in 2010 the Olympic Stadium hosted the Cambodian Premier League.