Body and mind… and architecture. These three vital aspects of the Olympics date back to the ancient Greek era and continue today as the Games return to London for the third time. Beginning with the historic Panathenaic stadium in Athens, Greece, Olympic stadiums have become spectacles of their own as they advance with time and technology.
London’s Olympic past is not without drama and footprints in history. Originally awarded to Rome, the 1908 Olympic Games were reassigned to London in November 1906 after Mt. Vesuvius erupted and devastated Italy’s economy. Despite the extremely short turnaround, London built the first stadium ever designed and built just for the Olympics. The White City Stadium was also the largest in the world at the time, holding a total of 150,000 people, 68,000 seated and 17,000 covered. This also marked the first time in Olympics history that the swimming took place in a specially built pool instead of open water.
Fast forward a few decades, and London was once again the site of the international competition in a time of chaos. After a 12-year break due to World War II, London’s Wembley Stadium was called upon to host the Games. The facility went under minor revisions, but nothing too drastic with the short time, depleted economy and damaged city. Its iconic twin towers still drew 82,000 fans, but the attraction was the unity of the games, not the arena.
A lot has changed over the last 64 years, least of which are the trends around the Olympic Stadiums and the competition to have the best or most-talked-about facilities. The 1948 Games were also the first ones shown on home TVs, which, of course, has grown. Funding from TV contracts, and the worldwide attention they bring, has played a large role in the design and construction of the stadiums.
Munich was awarded the 1972 Olympics, and its futuristic, innovative approach to building the arenas had the world talking. The Olympic site was a union of landscape and architecture, and became known as the “Green Olympics.” Years before the need to be sustainable and energy-conscious, Germany was on top of it. All of the facilities were concentrated in one area and were built with the idea of using most of the structures in the future – a trend that continues today. Munich was a site of both design and function as a dramatic, tent-like roof that covered the entire park was a show in itself.
In the years after, the Olympic architecture had its ups and downs, including a financial disaster in Montreal, a highly commercialized Los Angeles model in 1984 and uninspiring designs in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000). Most of the 36 venues built or upgraded for the 2004 Olympics in Athens are now decaying eyesores, leaving the struggling country in debt. Though not the case in Greece, a majority of the stadiums built in the past 20 years have been repurposed and reused, like the home of the Atlanta Braves, which became Turner Field less than a year after the end of the Olympics.
Perhaps one of the most talked about stadiums in recent history was the “Bird’s Nest,” home of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The steel structure was designed with Chinese mythology in mind, and though heavy, is touted to be “green.” The stadium featured a rainwater collection system, a translucent roof providing essential sunlight for the grass below and a passive ventilation system. The construction proved to not be very environmentally friendly, however, as 6,000 homes were demolished and a few citizens were killed in accidents over the four-year building period.
As we turn our attention to the Opening Ceremony in London tomorrow, it’s nice to know that the new Olympic Park was designed with the environment and future in mind. Olympic Stadium, now holding 80,000, will be transformed into a smaller venue, shrinking to 60,000 seats and the Olympic Park area will become a public park. The velodrome will be turned into a community center, and the Olympic Village dorms will be quickly converted into public housing.
In the process of design and construction, half a million trees were planted and 1.4 million tons of dirt was cleansed of arsenic, lead and other toxins. With only 11,000 tons of structural steel, it’s the lightest Olympic Stadium to date, compared to its Beijing predecessor at 42,000 tons. Architects also developed an awning that extends over three-quarters of the seats, which uses less material and also shields the field from wind.
Much like in the past, the carefully structured arena in London complements events and themes of its time. It’s simple, yet intellectually advanced and designed to be reused. Do you see the trend of sustainability continuing for Olympic Stadiums, or will future cities build with an extravagant theme in mind?