How (Not) To Host The Olympics

Torre Calatrava, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is a symbol of the Barcelona – one of the few modern that was economically beneficial to its host city. Photo via CC Flickr User Vaidas M.

So – you want to be an Olympic City do you? Well let’s hope you’re going for gold.

First of all, the Olympic bid is no child’s play. You can spend millions just to prove (often unsuccessfully) your worthiness. And, if you do get the bid, who’s to say that your Olympic Dreams won’t be dashed by elephantine debts, colossal inefficiencies, and your own citizenry’s open animosity?

Everyone may think the Olympics is all guts and glory, but frankly, the truth is far more complex. Which is why we’ve come up with a User’s Guide – the Do’s and Dont’s to Hosting Your Very Own Olympics.

We’ll begin with the GOLDEN RULE: “The best thing to do if you’re bidding for the Olympics, Is to Not Get the Olympics.”

Want to know the Cardinal Sins of Olympic Hostdom? Keep reading after the break…

Rendering for London’s 2012 Olympic Stadium, by Populous. Budgetary concerns have changed the original material for the outer “wrap,” leading The Times Critic to describe it as “Tragically Underwhelming.”

Now, why is the GOLDEN RULE important? It’s a question of attitude.

If you jump onto the Olympic bandwagon with half-baked ideas, blinded by glory, you’ll be headed for disaster. The key to “beating” the Olympic Games is to bid as if you’re not going to get them: to merely see the Olympics as the catalyst by which you’ll speed up your (already existent) plans for Urban Renewal.

Which leads us to our first DON’T: Design “White Elephants

No Architect would care to have his/her design for the crowning symbol of the Games, the Olympic Stadium, described as “Tragically underwhelming” (as London’s Olympic Stadium was critiqued by The Times critic Tom Dyckhoffof).

But better “Tragically Underwhelming” than “Tragically Useless.” Olympic Stadiums, for their colossal size and subsequent high cost of maintenance, often end up enormous, tenant-less, economic drains on their cities.

Montreal’s 1976 Olympic Stadium, nicknamed “The Big O” and subsequently “The Big Owe,” cost Montreal about 1 Billion Dollars due to construction and its ever-breaking retractable roof. Today, it sits empty. Photo by Gary Hustwit via Objectified.

Take the example par excellence, Montreal’s 1976 Stadium, nicknamed the “Big O” for its circular shape and the “Big Owe” for the amount of debt it incurred. A perfect storm of labor strikes, mismanagement, and complicated design (Rogert Taillibert‘s plan demanded an inclined, 175 meter tower to house the retractable roof), meant that – come Opening Day – the Stadium stood, tower half-built, roof non-existant.

The tower was eventually finished in 1987, but the roof subsequently collapsed – twice. In the end, the Stadium contributed to about 1 billion of Canada’s 1.5 billion dollar Olympic debt, a sum Canadians only just paid off in 2006 (30 years later). To add insult to injury, since the Montreal Expos moved to Washington DC in 2004, the Stadium sits empty.

Athens’ Stadium similarly lies in disuse and disrepair. Even China’s stunning “Bird’s Nest,” which seats 91,000 and costs about $9 million a year to maintain, hosts a mere smattering of events (the occasional opera concert, a winter theme park). The Nest is mostly a tourist attraction (4.61 million visitors in 2011) that will, eventually, become a shopping mall. But for now, experts say it will take about 30 years to recover the 3 billion yuan ($480 million) the Stadium cost to build.

Beijing’s The Bird’s Nest, the prime example of an Olympic Stadium meant to wow. It will take about 30 years to pay off its $480 million dollar price tag.

DO: Place Post-Use As The Priority

But how can it be avoided, you say? The International Olympic Committee (IOC) demands a state-of-the-art stadium large enough to house thousands for the opening/closing ceremonies. It must accomodate athletics of all types – from track to the javelin throw. And, most importantly, the Stadium is the most blatant symbol of your Country’s awesomeness. It must be BIG.

But that’s not to say that it can’t be smart. The most important rule to designing the Olympic Stadium, and really any Olympic building in general, is to design with conversion in mind.

Los Angeles and Atlanta, who hosted two of the most un-noteworthy Olympics of our times (1984 and 1996, respectively), at least had the good sense to design (and in the case of LA, reuse) stadiums built for other Sporting events.

Encounter Restaurant at Los Angeles Airport. The LAX expansion was one of the few new projects completed for the 1984 Olympics. Most structures were reused. As a result, LA was the first Olympic city to turn a profit since 1932. Photo © Chris Daniels/CORBIS

From the beginning, Atlanta’s Stadium’s ”destiny was baseball, not the Olympics,” according to Stan Kasten, the former president of the Braves, who took ownership of the Stadium after the Games. The Braves spent about $40 million (relatively cheap in Stadium-talk) to convert the Stadium into Turner Field, and Kasten notes,”Thirty million people have used it since the Olympics.”

Moreover, Atlanta placed many of its structures near a University, Georgia Tech, who then subsumed the facilities for student-use. Beijing did the same, and went one step further by designing its fencing hall, Indoor Stadium, and Olympic Village as convertible spaces (they are now a conference center, an arts & entertainment center, and private residences).

Which is exactly why the London stadium is in a bit of a pickle right now. With football (soccer) the national obsession, the obvious choice for its future-use would be as a Football Stadium. But, the 80,000 seat stadium has yet to find an occupant (a process that should have finished on May 21st). As one potential bidder put it, the Stadium is just “not fit for football,” as it lacks the tiered-seating and intimacy of a Football arena.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Your Stadium’s Not a Sprint, it’s a Marathon. Design for the post-Olympic long haul. 

Ready for Part II of our Olympic City Guide? Click here.



Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "How (Not) To Host The Olympics" 20 Jul 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
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  • Tim

    The “Theme Building” at LAX (now the Encounter Restaurant) had nothing to do with the 1984 Olympics. It was built in 1961.

  • Vanessa Quirk

    Thanks Tim. The inaccuracy has been corrected.

  • Roy

    Vancouver is another great example of post-Olympics reuse. Olympic Village, which housed the atheletes during the Games, was converted into condos afterward and sold off, very successfully. It’s now a thriving neighborhood.

  • walt

    “…the Barcelona Olympics – one of the few modern Olympics that was economically beneficial to its host city.”
    Perhaps when measured in the short term, otherwise current economic events demonstrate the dehabilitating effects on the long term economy due to debt accumulation.

    • Lee

      Barcelona’s problems are larger than the city, itself. The country is in trouble, so it is not fair to blame the Olympics for one city’s shortcomings amidst a national tightening. The ’92 Games were overwhelmingly helpful in promoting Barcelona as an international city, and in transforming it into the tourist hub it is, today.

      • 2

        The Spanish crisis we are living nowadays has nothing to do with hosting the Olimpics or not. Is due to the incompetence of the politicians to govern.
        Moral of the story: get rid of all your politicians as much as you can, the sooner the better

        A spaniard in exile

  • Philip

    First mistake as the organizers of the Los Angles Olympics recognised is that the Olympics is not a physical spectators event its a televised event, they had movie directors ‘creating’ venues out of nothing concentrating on camera angles. The next thing is the sense of social responsibility so absent from Olympic Committee thinking the ever increasing bill for the event which can bankrupt cities and countries inevitably means only wealthy/dictatorships nations can even contemplate a bid.
    What is wrong with a Olympic Year and spread the events over 10-12 months rather than a few weeks. We may even get a chance to see all the events that way, accommodation and venues can then be sustainably managed. The need for a grand opening event should not dictate the size of the stadium, for all its worth it can be equally achieved with a television link up at a fraction of the cost. Maybe then we might get games in smaller countries maybe even in Africa one day.

    • Samuel AB

      Great, more vuvuzelas.

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