What to do with Olympic venues once the Games are over

Recycle and reuse the infrastructure

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Benjamin GilliesWINNIPEG, MB, Mar 11, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Last month, the eyes of the world were on Sochi, Russia, as it welcomed athletes and spectators to one of the most popular sporting events on the planet. Hosting the Olympic Games is seen by many to be an honour, as is evidenced by the effort many cities put into their Olympic bids, said to generate significant economic spin-off and promote a sense of civic pride.

Yet, when the flame is extinguished and the stars and television cameras have gone home, the Games retain a presence in these cities – and unfortunately, it is not always positive.

The Sochi Olympics have been criticized for their sky-high price tag, but while it may be particularly staggering, almost all Games incur costs for their hosts. New arenas are built to accommodate tens of thousands of spectators but once the Games are over are frequently abandoned. In China, for instance, most venues have sat untouched since the end of the 2008 Beijing Games, with no plans for reuse. It is estimated it will take 30 years to pay for the little-used, $516-million Bird’s Nest Stadium alone.

The three-decade timeline is also familiar to Canadians: Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was dubbed the Big Owe because, while the city’s summer games took place in 1976, the tab was not closed until 2006.

In Europe, Greece spent about $16 billion on infrastructure for the 2004 Athens Games – much of which is today falling apart – and many experts believe this exacerbated the nation’s debt crisis.

Friendly international competitions are certainly worthwhile, but we need to ask how they can be carried out without leaving abandoned infrastructure and burdensome debts in their wake.

Positively, a number of architects have suggested ways – such as building reuse – to make the Games more sustainable. One of the most positive legacies of the Montreal Olympics, for example, was the transformation of the velodrome into the Montreal Biodome in 1992. Showcasing fauna from across the Americas, it has become one of the city’s most popular attractions.

While not an Olympic site, another interesting conversion was the Arsenal soccer stadium in London, redeveloped in 2010 into the Highbury Square apartment complex. The exterior of the stands was preserved as a façade, with tenants enjoying floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the pitch, which has become a community garden. All 711 units were sold within months of going on sale – many to fans eager to live on the historic grounds of their favourite football team.

A second idea that has yet to be tried is the actual recycling of infrastructure from one Olympiad to the next. In preparation for the London Olympics, organizers approached Chicago with an innovative proposition. Because London’s 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium would be reduced to just 25,000 seats after the competition, they suggested shipping the remaining 55,000 seats to the United States and installing them in a 7,500-seat arena in Chicago’s Washington Park, which would become that city’s Olympic Stadium should it win the 2016 Games.

Talks fell through when Chicago was unsuccessful in its bid, but the idea inspired Germany to send 16,000 seats from the 2006 FIFA World Cup to Barbados for the ICC Cricket World Cup. There was also discussion to deconstruct the London Games’ basketball venue and rebuild it in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but that plan was shelved for technical reasons.

More ambitiously, Michael Burt, a professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, has proposed a design for a floating, reusable Olympic pontoon. The giant structure could be transported along waterways and moored in port cities. Once docked, the facilities would be accessible by footbridges. While this would not accommodate all sports, it could be appropriate for certain venues, administration offices, and other secondary infrastructure.

Given the negative press the Sochi Olympics have received for their exorbitant cost and unprepared facilities, the International Olympic Committee ought to consider what it can do to promote a more sustainable event in future. Taking the initiative to find ways infrastructure can be recycled or structures repurposed reduces the overall environmental footprint. Moreover, curbing the cost of hosting the Games opens this opportunity to smaller countries that do not have as much money to spend.

The result could be a more global event that puts the focus back on the skills of the athletes and the thrill of competition, rather than who is paying the bill once the party is over.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, Canada, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant.

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