March 7, 2014

Olympic Venues: What Happens When the Games are Over?

By: Emma Elliott Freire

Thanks to the recent Winter Olympics, the city of Sochi  has two gorgeous ice hockey arenas. However, it doesn’t have an ice hockey team to play in them. These arenas are just two of Sochi’s many Olympic venues with question marks above their futures.

Sochi is home to around 340,000 citizens – hardly enough people to regularly use so many world-class sporting venues. The city is a popular vacation destination for Russians. But they mainly come in the summer to enjoy the resorts and beaches. Sochi doesn’t have a strong tradition of winter sports. It’s also unlikely to develop one after these Olympics. Many of the venues, including the ice rink which hosted figure skating competitions, are moveable. This means they could be relocated to other places in Russia in the future. However, new homes have yet to be identified.

Sochi’s Olympic ski jumps—completed 2 years behind deadline and 7 times over budget—were built on unstable ground. Thus, experts predict they will disintegrate within a decade.

Costing around $50 billion, the Sochi Olympics were the most expensive in history. The previous record holder was Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics, which cost an estimated $44 billion. Beijing has struggled to repurpose its Olympic venues—even though hundreds of thousands of residents lost their homes under eminent domain to make way for the construction.

The famous Water Cube where Michael Phelps won 8 gold metals has gone through several iterations since 2008. Currently, it’s being used as an aquatics center. It relies heavily on government subsidies to keep its doors open.

Perhaps the most iconic image of the Beijing Olympics was the Bird’s Nest Stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies were held. It seats 91,000 and now costs $10 million a year to maintain—not to mention the $500 million spent on its construction. The Stadium has only been used a handful of times since. However, it is a popular attraction for Chinese tourists.

The Fisht Olympic Stadium, the site of Sochi’s opening and closing ceremonies, poses similar problems. It seats 40,000 people. The Stadium will be used during the 2018 World Cup, which will be in Russia. However, in the meantime, Sochi only has an amateur local soccer team, who would never need such a large venue.

For Russia and China, the Olympics were seen as an important way to establish their presence on the world stage. This helped justify the huge public spending on venues that often have no further use.

London was already a major world city when it bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Thus, the organizers emphasized the “legacy” the games would bring. They promised urban renewal for the poorer parts of London and argued that more British people would be inspired to play sports. The long-term impact of the London Olympics remains to be seen. But many cities are now putting the idea of legacy at the center of their bids.

The worst modern-day example of a failure to plan ahead is Athens, which hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics. The cost of the games is seen by many economists as having contributed to Greece’s current financial meltdown. Today, the Greek government cannot afford to maintain the venues, and some have simply been abandoned.

Despite the enormous costs and uncertain returns, some cities still line up enthusiastically to host. In 2007, Chicago spent $50 million on its failed bid to host the 2016 Summer Games. President Obama and Michelle Obama even flew to Europe to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to vote for Chicago. However, Rio de Janeiro was eventually selected.

The games were not always such a hot ticket. In the 1970s, the IOC struggled to find hosts. Several cities hosted financially disastrous Olympics. This scared others away. One of the worst examples is Montreal, which spent 30 years paying off debt incurred by hosting the 1976 Summer Olympics.

Denver had already won its bid to host the 1976 winter games, but backed out after realizing the costs were too high. The IOC was left scrambling. They settled on Innsbruck, Austria, as a replacement. Innsbruck had hosted the 1964 Winter Olympics and could quickly repurpose its facilities.

The only city that bid to host the 1984 Summer Olympics was Los Angeles. These may go down as the thriftiest games in history. Los Angeles used already-existing sporting venues and declined to build an Olympic Village to host the athletes. Rather, the city put them up in university residences.

The 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary are widely seen as making hosting the games an attractive prospect once again. The Calgary organizing committee turned a profit using lucrative sponsorship deals. Their planning was excellent. All of the Olympic venues are still in use today.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, cities all over the world aggressively bid to host the games. However, the tide may be turning once again. Last summer, Brazilians took to the streets to protest the huge sums of public money spent on venues for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. They are angry that they have world-class stadiums but second-rate hospitals. During the bidding for the 2020 Summer Olympics, no American city showed serious interest in hosting. Rome was one of the final contenders, but the Italian government withdrew at the last minute, citing the country’s financial difficulties.

If this trend continues, more cities may look at the example of 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Perhaps low-budget hosting will make a comeback. Spending billions in public money on venues that have no use once the Olympics are over does not win any gold medals.

Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.