PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA, is a cool place to wander around. Markets galore, sobering reminders of the genocidal (to use the locals’ word) Khmer Rouge regime, and the opportunity to eat red ants cooked with onions and rice, should you be into that kind of thing. You can pretty much set your watch by the afternoon downpour, pelting down about the same time each day before disappearing as fast as it came, taking the edge (very slightly) off the heat. And as you’re wandering around the junction of Boulevards Charles de Gaulle and Preah Sihanouk, you will find, naturally enough, the Olympic Stadium, just exactly where you’d expect it to be…
Or not. If you don’t remember the Olympics ever being held in Phnom Penh, that’s because they weren’t. They’ve also never been held in Kaunas, Lithuania, but that doesn’t stop there being an Olympic museum tucked tidily away in that city’s back streets. So tidily, in fact, that staff there seemed almost surprised to have a visitor, which led to my being personally escorted through parts of the building. It’s less an Olympic museum per se than a broad celebration of Lithuanian sport in general, with basketball in the ascendancy, and a whole floor devoted to boxing. The English translations were selective, but pictures tell a compelling story.
An Olympic tragic from way back, and a spectator at equestrian and basketball events at the hometown Sydney 2000 Olympics, I’ve also dropped in on 13 other Olympic spaces – ACTUAL Olympic stadia and related areas – 11 serving the summer version, and 2 of winter fame. There’s something cool about standing in the Munich swimming arena where Mark Spitz and Shane Gould broke world records in 1972, or standing in the tower in Montréal’s stadium (1976), seeing the velodrome (shaped like a cyclist’s helmet) from above. One building in the Olympic village in Grenoble (winter, 1968) still points to the accommodations for the ‘Canadien, Suisse, Tcheque’ athletes, and the swimming and diving pools from Barcelona 1992 majestically overlook the city from Montjuïc, just as I remember from the TV images all those years ago. There’s a huge Olympic museum up there too, and it’s a corker, memorialising not only Barcelona 1992 but the broader Olympic movement, the history of sport, and achievements of Catalan athletes. It’s not quite the spectacular Olympic Museum alongside Lake Geneva in Lausanne, but for an Olympics geek like me, it’s gotta be done.
My desire for nostalgic Olympic sites has been satisfied by the stadia in Stockholm, Amsterdam, Berlin and Helsinki, all still standing from summer Olympic celebrations in 1912, 1928, 1936 and 1952 respectively. They’ve likely had some touch ups over the years, but all still play host to athletic events, most recently the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam in July 2016. And the anatomical detail on the statue of the nude javelin thrower outside the stadium in Stockholm is… well, detailed.
For a look at how modern Olympics do it, there’s the likes of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube from Beijing 2008. By December of that year, the Bird’s Nest, the main stadium, played host to an oversized Christmas tree, quite the bold choice for a country where Christmas isn’t really celebrated. It’s presently incubating in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2022.
Poignant Olympic spaces can be found in Sarajevo, the gorgeous capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Devastated by civil war in the 1990s, the city maintains and/or has rebuilt the main stadium (now the national football stadium, and home to FK Sarajevo), the Zetra complex (where Torvill and Dean famously recorded their perfect ice dance scores; now home to Sarajevo’s charming Olympic museum), and Skenderija, where the ice hockey was held. Still around are the luge and bobsleigh tracks, high up Mt Trebević, where Serb artillery made its home during the years of destruction. The tracks have seen better days, and they’re overgrown and graffitied after years of disuse, but they’ve survived. And from a spot not far from the top of the tracks, the vista of Sarajevo, hugging the valley below, is spectacular.
Let’s not forget where it the modern Olympic movement began: Athens. The fabulously horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium from the first modern Olympics in 1896 is built all of marble and sits in the shadow of the Acropolis. Much like the city it’s in, it reeks of history, as if every seat and step has a story to tell.
Other Olympic sites await my visit, and future sites have yet to be built. And should the Olympic movement globalise to the point where the Olympic Games one day come to Phnom Penh or Kaunas, they’ll be ready.