TO THE STATESMEN OF ASIA, MASTERY OF THE GAMES OF THE WEST IS MORE THAN RELAXATION: IT IS A LINK TO THE PEOPLE. LIKE MANY YOUNG FILIPINOS, PRESIDENT DIOSDADO MACAPAGAL (LEFT) LEARNED TO PLAY POOL IN HIS BOYHOOD, STILL SHOOTS A MEAN STICK TODAY. IN JAPAN, CROWN PRINCE AKIHITO'S LIFETIME ADDICTION TO TENNIS LED TO ROMANCE WHEN HE MET HIS FUTURE WIFE MICHIKO ON THE TENNIS COURT AT A MOUNTAIN RESORT.
HIGH SCORER WITH EITHER HAND
The benign gentleman enthroned at left in his basketball suit is Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, who has been much in the news lately for his independent attitude toward American foreign policy. After cancelling all financial and military aid from the U.S., he stretched out his right hand toward France for new help and even raised his left hand in a friendly wave toward Red China.
Then Sihanouk turned back with relish to an entirely different role, one in which he is neither so controversial nor so unpredictable: that of the highest-scoring basketball player in the world. Early this year the Prince set a new Cambodian record of 92 points in a single game. Most of the time, however, he scores only about 60 or 70 points. The Prince, it should be noted, is 41 years old, stands 5 feet 7 and is a bit on the plump side. He is also one of the jolliest, laughingest people in a country that easily leads all other nations on the face of the earth in annual laughs per person.
December 23, 1963
Prince Sihanouk is just as good at volleyball as he is at basketball. During the 1962-63 season he captained Cambodia's Palais Royal A team to the volleyball championship of the Corps Constitués et des Missions Étrang√®res, a league that meets once or twice a week on the grounds of the Prince's residence in Pnompenh. Among those who play on the other 11 teams in this extraordinary athletic league are the prime minister of Cambodia and most of his cabinet, a selection of the more agile ambassadors, several dozen members of the Cambodian parliament and any of the military brass who are currently ambulatory.
So far this year the palace A team is undefeated, but the league does not seem quite as strong as it did a year ago. The Czech ambassador and a very tall Russian doctor were both transferred home, thus taking much of the starch out of the Corps Diplomatique team; and the MAAG team, representing the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group, at first appeared to be weaker because of the loss of a couple of tall colonels and the replacement of the commanding general by another general who has not yet proved himself on the courts. Now comes even more drastic damage to the quality of the competition: the entire MAAG team has to go home because of the Prince's announcement that he no longer welcomes U.S. military aid—even in the form of volleyball players.
Although Prince Sihanouk lacks the reach to be a truly strong offensive volleyballer, he is a rock on defense, a powerful if somewhat unorthodox server and an inspirational captain. In Las Vegas the odds would have to be at least 5 to 1 that the palace A team will again lead the league, even though the Prince, like Mickey Mantle, is not entirely sound. He has a sprained third finger on his right hand and must encase it in a leather sheath while playing.
Among all the heads of state in the world today, Prince Norodom Sihanouk is—or has been—the outstanding athlete, and he certainly is the most versatile. Besides his vigorous participation in basketball and volleyball, he water-skis and jockeys his sports car around the countryside with all the restraint of a Paris taxicab driver. He was an accomplished equestrian until an injury dismounted him several years ago. And he played a sound game of soccer until he began to feel he was getting a bit elderly for such violent exercise.
Though the Prince loves to play these various games and loves even more to win, there is a good deal more to his sporting life than just that. One evening last summer as Sihanouk was about to step onto the basketball court for a league match, he stopped to chat with an American visitor who, mouth ajar in wonderment, was attending an extraordinary sports soiree laid on by the Prince.
"We are getting very old for this," the Prince told the visitor in his slightly hesitant English. Then he gestured toward hundreds of Cambodian children and grownups who were gathering around the court in the late afternoon and added, "But it is a good example for them. It encourages them to play."
Dressed in well-cut blue trunks and matching shirt, with the royal crest sewed on the front, the Prince thereupon took up his position under the enemy basket. His opponents were the Administration Civile, the team of cabinet ministers, each of whom had qualified for the league by being at least 35 years old. A referee put the ball in play and the massacre began.
For reasons that can only be guessed at, Administration Civile did not guard the Prince as closely as game strategy and past performance might have dictated. Whenever the play moved downcourt, Sihanouk was left standing alone, watching his teammates anxiously, but every now and then throwing a smile to the spectators. The four other members of the palace team were accomplished ball hawks. They rarely had any trouble separating the ball from Administration Civile, and they had complete control of the backboards. Once they got their hands on the ball they lobbed it the length of the court to the Prince at his station beneath the basket. With a deft little right-handed jump shot he caromed the ball off the backboard and neatly through the basket. It was a fine play, faultlessly executed, and it happened so often that the palace team scored 30 points or so before Administration Civile recorded its first basket.
Whenever Sihanouk scored, an enormous roar burst from the audience, which had now grown to several thousand standees and squatees. The Prince, who is all extrovert, would bathe everyone with his rich, warm grin, while swinging his arms self-consciously as if to say "Shucks, it wasn't that good." If he missed, which was seldom, a small frown like a dark cloud swept across his normally cheerful round face.
The final score of the match was 156-28 in favor of palace A, with the Prince scoring 72 of his team's points. A brass band on the sidelines started to play one of the slow, slightly mournful Cambodian songs, many of which Sihanouk himself has composed; and all the players of both teams bowed in deep reverence to the Prince, their hands joined in a prayerful clasp and their foreheads almost touching the ground, as if they were trying to roll peanuts with their noses. Sihanouk acknowledged their salute by clasping his own hands together and bowing reverently in return. Then he made the same gesture in all directions to the cheering, smiling crowd of spectators around the court. It was a touching moment of mutual affection and respect between an enlightened leader and his people.
The next item on the program that evening was a ladies' volleyball match on an adjoining court, for the Prince likes to see the women of his country as fit as the men. This contest featured Les Dames du Palais Royal against a pickup team of French women, most of them wives of French army officers. Sihanouk's wife, Princess Monique, who is half Cambodian and half Italian, led the palace ladies to their places, and their appearance on the court was one of the finest sights a man could see. Cambodians are extremely modest, so Princess Monique and her team were turned out in loose-fitting black silk slacks and red blouses. Yet nothing could conceal the grace and beauty of the ladies of the palace. Princess Monique is one of the prettiest women in all of Asia—or, in other words, the entire world. The French women, exquisitely coiffed, wore short shorts.
While the ladies were playing, Sihanouk sat in an armchair close by the court, shouting encouragement to his wife and her teammates. Since the palace team won the first set, and the Princess, despite a bandaged hand, was the best player on her side, the Prince had much to smile about. But as the game progressed, the French women started to get the hang of it, and their captain, a large and agile Belgian baroness, was soon too much for the competition. The palace ladies began to lose, the Prince grew increasingly unhappy and several times he publicly corrected Princess Monique for the careless way she batted the ball. Like so many wives who think their husbands are talking poppycock, she pretended she did not hear what he was saying. As cool and languid as her husband is bouncy and exuberant, Princess Monique accepted her team's defeat gracefully. Whatever her feelings may have been at the moment, she let her husband do the family emoting.
After the Princess and her team stopped playing, other volleyball and basketball games continued simultaneously for hours. As it grew dark the courts were floodlit; around 10 o'clock someone set up a small bar where sandwiches and beer and whisky and gin were sold. The snack peddlers one sees on all the streets of the Orient suddenly appeared with their barrows to dispense noodle soup and other Cambodian delicacies to the spectators. All the while the Prince wandered through the crowd, cracking jokes that put the people in stitches, but every so often he would rejoin his wife, sitting beside her on one of the chairs reserved for the palace company. Wherever he happened to be, you could always hear the chatter of his happy voice or the cackle of his infectious laughter as he played his role of the genial host.
As the evening wore on, the foreign dignitaries and their families began to steal glances at their watches. When the American Ambassador finally left, he explained that he had to make an appearance before a Boy Scout meeting, and some of the other foreigners looked as if they wished they had a similar excuse. Toward midnight, while a seemingly endless volleyball game was in progress between the French army officers and their Cambodian counterparts, the Prince trotted briskly over to his American visitor and said, with great consideration, "This game is very...er...very...er...very lasting. You must feel free to leave whenever you care to do so. I know you must be up early in the morning." Sihanouk speaks precise English, but it is quite obvious that his mind is translating from French to English as he talks.
On another day, in a formal statement, Prince Sihanouk explained what had prompted his frenetic addiction to sport and his insistence on sharing it with his subjects. "Sport," he said, "and more especially games in which opposing teams confront each other in friendly rivalry, serves to instill discipline into a nation's youth by teaching it the advantage to be derived from cooperating together to achieve a common objective. Sport also trains young men and women to control their emotions, promotes fellowship and improves physique and thus builds up strong bodies and forms disciplined minds—qualities which are of inestimable value to a nation preparing to play a worthy part in the modern world."
It is toward this modern world that Sihanouk is trying to guide Cambodia, a nation that began only a few years ago to make the long climb out of the Middle Ages.
Cambodia's first touch with the modern world came in 1863, when the ancient Khmer kingdom became a French protectorate, a colonial state bordered by what is now Vietnam on the east and Laos on the north. It remained this way for nearly 100 years, an exotic colony at the far corner of Southeast Asia. In 1941 Sihanouk's grandfather, King Sisowath Monivong, died, and the French overlords decided to pass over Sihanouk's father in the line of succession. Instead, the Prince himself, then only 18, was installed as ruler by the Vichy government of Marshal Pétain, which no doubt hoped to have under its control a pliable youth who would give no trouble at a time when France was sufficiently harassed by her heavy misfortunes in Europe.
Until the end of World War II nothing of consequence happened to either Cambodia or Sihanouk, since the country was somewhat removed from the main currents of the struggle in the Far East.
However, when the war ended, and the great movement for independence swept across Southeast Asia, young Sihanouk was at the forefront of his nation's cry for independence from the French. During the difficult years that followed, when the Communist Viet Minh kept most of Indochina in turmoil, Sihanouk took to the field with the tough Cambodian troops and led the drive that expelled the Viet Minh from his soil. The job was done so well that when the French finally guaranteed independence to all the three states of Indochina in the Geneva Agreement of 1954, Cambodia was the only one that did not have to be partitioned between Communist and uncommitted governments.
Nonetheless, the politics of Cambodia, under the constitution it adopted in 1947, were in constant uproar. The squabbles of innumerable political parties made a farce of self-government. It was at this point that Sihanouk, then 32, abdicated the throne—though maintaining in name at least the royal title of Prince—in favor of his father, so as to take a more active part in his nation's day-to-day politics. He helped found the Sangkum, a political party that swallowed up all the dissident groups and brought some unity to the country's internal chaos. For himself, Sihanouk set up a position he called Chef de l'État, a kind of paternalistic function which carries no particular constitutional authority but synthesizes within itself the royal prestige and the power of party leadership. In Western terms, he was the boss. Everyone knew it, and practically everyone was glad.
Today, by any standards, Cambodia is a poor country. So far as is yet known, it is without such natural resources as coal or oil. Almost all of its 6 million inhabitants till the soil, growing rice in the paddy fields that are under water half the year. They also grow a little cotton and a little rubber and harvest a little lumber in the mountains along the coast of the Gulf of Siam. Modern public utilities are scarce and even in the capital city of Pnompenh, very few of the half million inhabitants have telephones. Transportation is mainly by bus over primitive roads or by bicycle or on foot. The country's greatest natural asset is its unfailing good humor. There are no better-natured people anywhere.
Good humor, however, is a very difficult asset to convert into strength and wealth. After he had been only a few years at the herculean task of modernizing his small nation, Sihanouk realized the country needed two things desperately: a feeling of unity and an aggressive spirit. So he turned to organized sport, which was as unfamiliar as champagne and Cadillacs to his agrarian subjects.
Until 1958, a mere five years ago, no Cambodian team of any kind had ever entered an international competition. That year, The Asia Foundation, a privately endowed group of Americans who try to sell the U.S. abroad, provided the money for a Cambodian basketball team to go to the Asian Games in Tokyo. Naturally, the team did poorly.
A year or so later, Sihanouk founded the Commissariat du Sport. Its purpose was to arouse interest in games like soccer and basketball and volleyball, games which could be played with a minimum investment in equipment by the children in Cambodia's growing public school system. But again the results were discouraging. At the 1961 South-East Asia Peninsular Games in Rangoon, only the Laotians, a people conspicuous for their lassitude, did worse than the Cambodians, who won but a single gold medal (in boxing). At that point, Sihanouk placed the sports program under the army, where a great deal of the nation's money and authority reposed.
All of a sudden, playing fields began to sprout across the Cambodian countryside like dandelions on a commuter's front lawn. The number of soccer fields and basketball courts quintupled. Volleyball courts increased tenfold. The Prince and his Palais Royal teams began appearing here, there and the other place, beating the stuffing out of all local opposition and thereby showing the young folks that even Monseigneur himself, as the Prince prefers to be known in his new role, enjoys team sports. The only trouble was, nobody knew how to play any of the games properly.
As if the Prince had waved a magic wand, skilled coaches suddenly began to appear from all over the world. The Chinese Communists sent basketball coaches. The Czechs sent instructors in mouvement d'ensemble. The Americans sent coaches for track and field, swimming and boxing. In the great struggle for the neutralist mind of Cambodia, sport became the friendly battleground. Even during the last few weeks, America's missionaries of sport remained as welcome as ever.
Among all the Tom Dooleys and Peace Corpsmen and other selfless Americans who have carried the flag of democracy abroad, none are more inspiring and devoted than the earnest little band of coaches who labor to make real athletes out of the untrained Cambodian youth. There is Bill Sorsby, a onetime University of Oregon sprinter and hurdler who gave up his job as track coach at the University of Idaho. There is Joe Foggy, a former Tennessee State football player who now teaches boxing. There is Phil Reavis, the Villanova high jumper who was on the 1956 Olympic team. There was Dr. Bernard Loft, a swimming coach from Indiana, who has since been spelled by another American.
All these men have beaten the tropical bushes of the Cambodian countryside, exposing their digestive systems to indescribable punishment while looking for the most talented young athletes of the nation. Once they have assembled their pupils in the training quarters at Pnompenh, they must act as parents, teachers, coaches and priests to teen-agers who speak not a word of English—and not much more French. Awaiting the completion of a Sihanouk-inspired municipal stadium at Pnompenh, Sorsby and Reavis must run their track team up and down the steps and around the perimeter of the Pnompenh temple in the heart of the city. Foggy's boxers work out in a gym that looks like Mammy Yokum's chicken coop. Dr. Loft's swimmers are forced to thread their way through the small fry bathing in the plunge of the local French sports club.
Perhaps the greatest frustration of all belongs to Chris Appel, who two years ago was an all-conference basketball player for the University of Southern California. Because of his basketball talent and because he learned to speak facile French from his Russian and French parents, Chris was asked to go to Cambodia and coach basketball under the aegis of The Asia Foundation.
When he arrived, Chris found a Chinese Communist in charge. He also discovered that nothing was about to make the neutralist Cambodian government risk an international incident by awarding the job to an American. Anyway, Cambodians had always thought the Chinese to be better basketball players than the Americans. So Chris Appel promptly organized a makeshift team of student teachers-in-training and almost beat the Chinese-trained team in the finals of the national tournament. This near miss improved Appel's position—and the respect of Cambodians for American basketball—but Chris has not yet fully succeeded in deposing his Chinese rival. Nevertheless, he continues to labor in Sihanouk's behalf and to share the Prince's concern for the continued growth of sport in Cambodia.
"We are handicapped in some sports," Prince Sihanouk said recently, "by our small stature. This applies to athletics in general, with the result that we have never put up much of a show as athletes at international games. Lack of height also prevents us from giving a good account of ourselves at basketball despite the natural aptitude shown by many of the younger generation for this game."
Coaches Sorsby and Appel got to thinking about this statement of the Prince's one afternoon, and Sorsby said, "I wish we could get that idea out of their heads. I wish we could get some of our best short athletes over here to show them it doesn't matter how tall you are. I wish we could get Jim Beatty and Paul Stuber, the Oregon high jumper who has done seven feet."
Appel, who himself stands 6 feet 2, cut in, "I wish we could get Bob Cousy over. They've got plenty of guys as tall as Cousy. They don't even know we've got basketball players like that. Imagine what they would think if they could see some of our really good basketball teams like the Celtics. I can't even get good movies of the pro games to show them. Or imagine if they could see the Harlem Globetrotters. God, that would be worth all the foreign aid money we've put into this country for the last 10 years. Instead of that they send us the San Francisco Ballet or the Budapest String Quartet. A lot of good that does."
"Gee, there are so many things we could do," Sorsby said. "If we could just get them a decent diet with enough protein. These kids just don't have a chance to build up their endurance eating things like rice and noodles and barbecued tarantulas or whatever those things are that they get. They have so much natural ability that it hurts you to know that they aren't making the most of it."
Elsewhere and on another occasion, Prince Sihanouk said last summer, "I don't consider the winning of athletic honors necessary or very important. But we do attach very great importance to the physique and character-building aspect of our sports program.
"Nevertheless, our status as an independent nation does impose on us the obligation to acquit ourselves worthily, not only in the field of sport but also in all those other activities in which we are called upon to play our part.
"In sport, we struggle on in good heart, making the most of such assets as we have and showing ourselves thereby to be in robust health, and to possess dogged determination. Furthermore, I don't think a small nation lays itself open to criticism by treating sports and games as a serious matter like the great powers, which have prestige considerations to worry about.
"But there is an aspect of these international gatherings which does interest us greatly. That is the occasion they offer for nations both great and small to get to know each other better and for athletes of all nationalities to live together in brotherly fashion."
This rather lofty attitude toward sport hardly jibes with Prince Sihanouk's own fiercely competitive nature on the playing field, and one suspects that his subjects are more likely to be guided by his actions than his words. Cambodians, particularly young Cambodians, idolize Sihanouk; he has brought them a way to translate their energy into unity and purpose.