Avoiding ‘white elephants’ in the wake of global sporting events

Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to this World Cup, Brazil has taken its share of criticism for the spending on construction of its many stadiums. Many fear the venues will go unused once the tournament is over July 13. Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College, writes that, “Most countries end up with a lot of debt, a lot of white elephants, and quite a bit of infrastructure investment that is not ideal for the type of development needs that a city has.” In the midst of all the negativity, it is appropriate to highlight examples of successful repurposing of venues used in international competition.

England spent 10.8 billion pounds for the 2012 Summer Olympics Games. One of the many venues built was the training facility for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Eton Manor Site was used for training, as well as the aquatic events and wheelchair tennis for the Paralympics. It was expected that the site would be unused after the Games, but London firm Stanton Williams set out to find a way to repurpose the site.

Stanton Williams envisioned connecting the large site with the neighboring east London neighborhoods. Is was rebranded as the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Center, adding 10 tennis courts, two field hockey stadiums and a mountain bike trail. It serves the local community and can cater to national and international sports teams and events. Architect and firm co-founder Paul Williams explains that he believes the center “will continue to evolve and become richer. . . . It is the crossover of all these different groups of people that is going to make this a very special venue.”

Aerial view of the Eton Manor at the Olympic Park. Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Aerial view of the Eton Manor at the Olympic Park. Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

The firm did what other cities and designers have failed to do with a venue like the Eton Manor site. They reshaped the topography, improved the links between the streets around the site, and made the site accessible and available to the public. Dezeen architecture and design magazine sums up the transformation:

“Stanton Williams’ overall design therefore aims to open the park up to visitors and reassert the building as an integral, legible part of the surrounding landscape. The site’s topography has been significantly re-shaped to aid legibility and accessibility, creating better visual and physical links with the streets to the north and also the bridges, which connect to the Park and Hackney Marshes.”

Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics in 1984 and is still deemed most successful Olympics Games in history. In many ways, the 1984 games were unique due to its financial success and ability to use venues that were already in place.

The bidding process in the 1970s and 1980s was the opposite of today. Countries were hesitant to become involved due to the exorbitant cost of the event. Los Angeles was the only bidder, and therefore did not have to prepare elaborate designs for the IOC, saving money during the bidding process. Local businessman Peter Ueberroth headed the organizing committee, naming it LA84, and teamed up with other entrepreneurs and financially savvy business leaders. Because the ’84 games were not sponsored by the government, the team had to find a way to finance the Games. The answer: The group of businessmen sold the television rights to ABC for $225 million ahead of time.

LA84 also adopted an innovative architectural strategy. The committee decided it would not allow any new sporting structures to be built. Instead it modified and upgraded existing venues. LA84 used the Coliseum for baseball and the opening ceremony, turned athlete housing into dormitories for USC, and the aquatics venue, financed by sponsor McDonald’s, was also transitioned to USC. Overall, the total cost was $546 million, but a profit of $232.5 million was turned. The only other Olympics to turn a profit was the 1932 Games, also held in L.A.

L.A. and London both found a way to reuse and repurpose existing Olympic sites and avoid the white elephant situation we have witnessed in other countries. We will see if other mega-event hosts learn from those examples.

Related: When the crowds go home, what happens next?

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