Following on from my earlier post, the other debate in assessing the value of the Olympics is the legacy it leaves in its wake.  Many more learned than I will put forward their complex models in an attempt to assess the possible economic benefits, so I wanted to focus on one particular aspect of the legacy; the continued viable use of the centrepiece of the games, the stadium itself.

First, a quick “where are they now?” run down of the 10 most recent Olympic stadia:

1972 (Munich): Occupied by Bayern Munich until they relocated to the Allianz Arena built for the 2006 World Cup in Germany (frankly, they couldn’t wait to get out and the Munich Olympic Stadium wasn’t even considered as a venue for the 2006 World Cup).

1976 (Montreal): Converted into a baseball park and barely used. Widely considered a huge waste of taxpayer money.

1980 (Moscow): Wasn’t specially built for the Olympics, was an existing football stadium, is still used as such and will host the 2018 World Cup final.

1984 (Los Angeles): No new arenas built, the LA Coliseum (an existing American Football stadium) was pressed into service.

1988 (Seoul): Hosts soccer (a sport which the locals are hugely indifferent about) and a few concerts, but not been used for a major event since the Olympics.

1992 (Barcelona): An unused soccer stadium was refurbished and renovated for the Olympics but is now largely abandoned again save for the odd concert and occasional athletics event.

2000 (Sydney): Used regularly for rugby, soccer, Aussie rules, cricket and concerts.  A real legacy success.

2004 (Athens): Again, an existing football stadium that was renovated for the games.  Occasionally used now also for major soccer events (Champions League final in 2007, for example) and concerts.

2008 (Beijing): A stunning piece of stadium architecture, but now no more than a museum piece and tourist attraction which is apparently already falling into disrepair.  Due to host the 2015 World Athletics Championships, however.

2012 (London): Remains to be seen…

There seems to be a simple conclusion to be reached from an examination even as cursory as the one above: purpose-built Olympic stadia (with the exception that is the shining example of Sydney – more below) seem to have no future other than as white elephants.

But why is that?

Here’s the Olympic stadium paradox: To host an Olympic games you need a stadium with at least a 60-80,000 capacity.  For the duration of the games, the “core tenant” is track and field athletics, however, pretty much the only sustainable ongoing tenants of a stadium of that size are football (Association, American or Aussie Rules) and rugby.  Stadia designed solely for track and field make useless football and rugby stadia because the feature that is the focus for athletics (the track) becomes a barrier distancing the crowd from the action when it is not being used.

So how did Sydney make it work?  Simple; theirs was the first Olympic stadium that “designed in” the requirements for future use into its original architecture.

Stadium Australia (or the Telstra Stadium as it is now known) was built specifically for the 2000 Sydney Olympics at a cost of A$690m (around £450m).

Its capacity in its original Olympic configuration was 110,000 (the largest Olympic Stadium ever built) and featured two semi-permanent “wing” stands at either end of the ground which were designed to be removed after the Olympics.

After the games, these and the athletics track were duly removed and a moveable lower seating section installed to accommodate both sports needing an oval (Aussie rules and cricket) and a rectangle (rugby and soccer).

Roofs were constructed over the remaining seating at each end, and bingo; a flexible, multi-purpose stadium for field sports with a capacity just north of 80,000 at the relative snip of around A$80m (around £50m) in conversion costs.

This clearly inspired the organisers of the next major multi-sport event, the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, as they adopted the same approach towards post-games conversion of the main stadium.

Designed by Arup Associates, the City of Manchester Stadium was built with a 38,000 capacity at a cost of £112m  To ensure the long-term financial viability of the stadium, a lease was agreed with Manchester City as a replacement for their Maine Road stadium, but on the condition that they were satisfied with the post-games conversion and that the capacity could be increased to 48,000.

Arup used the same principle of semi-permanent sections which could be removed after the games to complete the “bowl”.  But where they were really clever was in accommodating the additional seating and the “closing in” of the stadium to be closer to the pitch.

This was achieved by building an additional lower tier at the same time as the initial construction which was filled in for the track and field configuration.  After the games, the track was removed (and re-laid at other athletics venues) and the ground level excavated and lowered to reveal the lower tiers to which were added seats, which also effectively reduced the size of the field to that required for a football pitch.

The semi-permanent sections were duly removed, the bowl completed in the same design as the permanent sections and, at a conversion cost of around £40m (plus a £20m fitting out cost met by the club), the Etihad Stadium was born.

So why was a design strategy that clearly works completely ignored for the two Olympic stadia built post-Sydney, particularly after Manchester had demonstrated for a second time how well it worked?

In the case of Beijing, you can sort of understand it.  Whilst their hosting of the Olympics was presented as part of their “rehabilitation” process into the global community, they at the same time no doubt wanted demonstrate their position as a global economic superpower.  What better way of doing that that than coming up with an expensive (around £265m), elaborately designed stadium of which you had no plans for any further use?

But London? No matter what you think of the stadium design and, despite the hugely evocative events that took place there, two facts remain: it has no practical, economically viable ongoing use in its current configuration (only exacerbated by the circular design); and there is no evidence that any consideration for easy post-games conversion was incorporated into its design.

The relative merits of Tottenham Hotspur’s (demolish and rebuild it) and West Ham’s (convert it) cases for taking over the stadium have long been debated elsewhere so I won’t go into them here.

But it would be interesting to know if the question has ever been asked of anyone at LOCOG and/or the London 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority what their logic was in seeming to completely ignore the valuable precedents set by Sydney and Manchester and spending £469m of public money on a stadium with such apparent wilful disregard for its continued sustainable use.  I, for one, would be very interested to hear their answer.

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