Managing Olympic Venues Simon Darcy & Tracy Taylor Olympic sport venues are the stage upon which Olympic athletes perform and are a critical component in for both athletes and spectators at the Olympic Games. Venues built specifically to host the Olympic Games have become a focus of international media attention in the years leading up to Olympic Games for a combination of their design, aesthetic impact, construction timeframes, operational logistics, cost and questions regarding longer-term use and sustainability. These include sport specific venues and support venues such as the athlete village. A handful of venues, such as Barcelona’s swimming pool (Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc) with its panoramic views over Barcelona or Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, have achieved iconic status as an architectural cultural signature, as historic cultural context and future desires are expressed through their design.
This chapter reviews the history and development of Olympic Games venues and then focuses on the key contemporary issues in managing Olympic venues. In doing so, venue management considerations for bidding and host cities are outlined. Historical documents from host cities, academic and social critiques of Olympic city venue management and other source documentation provide the basis for these discussions. An outline of the chapter's structure follows..
Historical context of venues and Olympic cities
The attention paid to contemporary Olympic Games venues has intensified as stakeholder expectations are ever increasing.Venues have become more expensive to build, as city after city tries to outdo the previous Games’ venues, and as hosts strive to deliver an iconic edifice that not only allows athletes to perform to the best of their ability but that can be effectively used post Games. While the attributes of the host city dominated the discourse of early Games media attention, more recent focus has shifted to the structures that are the stage for the athletic performances. In recent times the Olympics and Paralympics have become a means for many host cities to reconstruct their industrial and dockland areas, or relocate public housing residents and use low-income neighbourhoods. Often controversial, in many instances the developments associated with individual venues, Olympic villages and precincts have become the focus of international attention from the moment that the bidding cities express their interest. As noted throughout this book, cities and nation states compete against each other for the right to host the Olympic Games and each bid city expends tens of millions of dollars1 in this process. Being selected by the International Olympic Committee to host an Olympic Games, means raised stakes from tens of millions of dollars for the Olympic bids to billions of dollars to stage an Olympic Games. A great deal of the costs of hosting the Olympics are related to the construction of new venues and refurbishment of older venues necessary to host the multi sport event. The inclusion of football (soccer) has increased the need to refurbish the venues to host the significant number of football games that tend to be held in other cities and areas across the nation. These venues will host some 10,000 Olympic athletes and since 1988 some 5000 Paralympic athletes, accompanying officials and spectators during games time. Additionally, the modern Olympic and Paralympic games are held in conjunction with the cultural Olympiad, which draws on venues within the host cities, that often require construction or refurbishment.
The phenomena of the bidding frenzy by prospective host cities is a relatively modern phenomena where as recently as the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games there was an absence of any competition.A series of political and financial considerations together with what is known as the the "White Elephant" syndrome meant that the perceived benefits of hosting were carefully weighed against the costs. The "White Elephant" syndrome has been long synonymous with Olympic venues. The term white elephant draws its origins from the sacred white elephants kept by traditional Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia where such care and extravagance was lavished on the animals that it was to the detriment of the kingdom. As it translates, a white elephant is used to describe a high status or valuable possession whose cost and ongoing maintenance makes it a liability. In a market economy, the stadium or other venue would not be a profitable venture for the private sector to take on as a going concern. For example, in the United States of America only a small number of major public assembly venues that include sports stadia are owned and operated by the private sector . In a government sense, the development cost, ongoing maintenance together with the social surplus (trickle-down effect, social capital, psychic benefit etc.) that it creates are not enough to overcome the excessive financial costs . As Barclay and others have argued, from an economic perspective the ex-ante economic impact studies overestimate the benefits and gains from hosting the games and underestimate the costs o the extent that it is hard to understand the intensely competitive nature of the bidding processes. Nowhere is this more evident than the venue building programs that accompany Olympic Games.
Gold and Gold (2011) found evidence dating as far back as the London 1908 games that the White City Stadium was regarded as “less desirable physical legacy of a huge and largely unwanted stadium”. Mangan’s description builds upon the white elephant analogy by suggesting the White City Stadium was a ‘limping white elephant’ of the Olympic Games. The White City Stadium is a good example of the ongoing management issues that eventuate when a venue is built without due consideration for its position within the sporting or cultural context of the region, city or nation. Not long after the London 1908 Olympic Games the White City Stadium was to be demolished but lay dormant for with sporadic use until the mid-1920s. In 1926 the Stadium was passed to the Greyhound Racing Association and renovated for its purposes (Jenkins 2008 cited in Gold & Gold 2011). In 1932 the running track was redeveloped so that it became host to athletics events once more, and some other large scale sporting events. Athletic events were moved in 1971 to Crystal Palace, and the Stadium struggled once more, and was subsequently demolished in 1985. Once a venue has been constructed then it is very difficult for the "owner" to admit that the decision was not a good one and to put an end to its existence. What can be evidenced from the White City Stadium case is that a series of ad hoc decisions are made in the hope that the venue will be fit for purpose (particular activity) and fit for community (all stakeholders).
Of all Olympic white elephants the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games became the most infamous due to the financial debt that the city carried for almost 30 years and lack of post-games planning . Largely brought about by technical, construction and labour relations difficulties, along with ‘a worsening economic situation and period of global inflation’ created a problematic operating environment for the city. The Olympic Stadium Pool Velodrome complex was the icon of the problems facing the city, the complexity of the facilities designs and the use of pioneering construction techniques for the Olympic Park installations, together with increases in the price of steel bought from US producers, contributed to to $1.5 billion deficit . The Stadium became known as the “Big Owe” locally with its debt funded through a tobacco tax. The debt was cleared some 30 years later in November 2006 . Ironically, the debt would have been cleared sooner if the Canadian government had not implemented smoking reforms.
The white elephant syndrome is not restricted to the accumulated debt of hosting an Olympic games. In reviewing the three previous summer Olympic hosting cities to London 2012, three separate white elephant syndrome issues arise. The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was regarded as a success operationally and well managed from a debt perspective with the games costing the host government $1.5 billion. However, the underutilisation of the Sydney Olympic Park venues (the main precinct and the concentration of venues) immediately following the games raised much concern over its long term viability . Stadium Australia (rebranded Telstra Stadium and then changed to ANZ stadium) and the Superdome (rebranded Acer Arena and currently called Allphones Arena), had operated at a loss for the five years post-games . Searle attributes this partly to the existing facilities being available in Sydney’s east while others consider it a failure of legacy planning for post-Olympic use . It was not until a more concerted strategic planning approach was developed to masterplan the precinct, together with a change in management for both Stadium Australia and Superdome that the precinct and its venues have increased utilisation and profitability. Acer (now Allphones) Arena is internationally ranked in the top five venues globally for use and profitability .
The Athens 2004 Olympic Games may yet end up as the symbol of a mismanaged economy in the wake of the global financial crisis and Greek debt in particular. While nobody has directly attributed the Greek economic situation wholly to the 2004 Olympic Games, there are obvious parallels that can be drawn. With respect to the venues, while there was a great deal of concern about the timelines for completion prior to the games, they were generally regarded as sound structures that were regarded as architecturally complex. As Gold and Gold (2001, p.51) suggest, ‘Despite its architecturally sophisticated buildings being intended as a symbol of the new Athens, the Olympic Sports Complex at Maroussi remains heavily underused, with the stadium only open to the public when concerts or soccer matches are being staged. The Faliro and Helleniki complexes have also struggled to find alternative uses. All have continued to lose money as borrowing and maintenance costs have still to be met’ (Gold & Gold 2001, p.51). By the nature of the comments made, Greek venues seem to meet the criteria to be regarded as white elephants. While a number of other Greek venues and strategies for post-games use, including the Aghios Kosmos Sailing Centre for licence approvals as a shopping and recreational complex and the canoe-kayak slalom centre which intends to become a water park but they have failed to sustain themselves. The Athens 2004 OCOG was responsible for construction of the Olympic Village and some of the sports venues but it abandoned plans for tendering to public-private partnerships for projects where private investment opportunities were identified. All of the remaining sports venues were constructed or upgraded under a government agency (the General Secretariat of Sports).
The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games had some of the most innovative and architecturally inspiring venues that any recent Olympics had seen, which were part of a concerted effort create a new "Brand China" . Brand China was inextricably linked to the innovative technologies in construction techniques and materials used to enhance sustainability efforts. In one of the few remaining Communist countries where the market economy was being newly embraced, no cost was spared and a degree of post-games planning had been considered. The Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium for example cost, “3.5 billion yuan (approximately US$427 million dollars) and the maintenance cost 170 million yuan” annually. While western style corporate naming rights and sponsorship had been suggested as a strategy for offsetting the maintenance costs, they were ‘rejected due to the national importance of the venue’. It had also been suggested that the largest soccer team in Beijing could take over the use of the stadium but it was doubtful that they could afford to maintain it (Gold & Gold 2011, p. 355). It seems that summer cultural events and visitor entry fees (50 yuan) are the main post-games use, with the latest considerations being the integration of shopping and entertainment complexes .
The “Water Cube”, the Beijing National Aquatic Centre, on the other hand has found a niche use where “…there appears to be limited need for a public swimming facility of this kind and it is more likely to be used in the long term as a venue for the elite aquatic sports’ (Gold & Gold 2011, p. 355). The concern is that once other facilities in Olympic Park are demolished what will remain is ‘likely to offer some kind of a private haven: a space of elite consumption founded upon the memories of three weeks in the summer of 2008’. Gold & Gold (2011 p.356) discuss that even in China where the Olympics were staged at a great cost to the public yet may end up serving as “leisure enclaves for the rich”. Similarly, the limited benefit of the venue development to locals extends to the $10 billion transport and infrastructure investment by the Beijing municipal government. Even in a country with a controlled economy and political environment as China, the white elephant syndrome has been a challenge to manage with significant issues remain to be addressed .
With this background, the remainder of the article examines a series of issues to improve the venue planning, design, construction and operations.
Table #: Venue Table (see end of document - more to be added)
Sources: official Olympic Games post-games reports http://www.la84foundation.org/5va/reports_frmst.htm