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LIVING LINK TO THE PEOPLE
Alfred Wright
December 23, 1963
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.
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December 23, 1963

Living Link To The People

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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.

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