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Abandoned, Expensive, or Imploded: The Wasteful World of Olympic Facilities

Hosting the Olympic Games is a great honor. At least, that’s what the International Olympic Committee tells host cities. In reality, it’s an expensive ordeal that almost always loses money and usually results in a whole lot of useless sports-related infrastructure. In some cities, like Los Angeles or London, it’s not too difficult to find a use for a 60,000 person stadium. In others, like Sochi or Pyeongchang, it’s nearly impossible. 

A year or two after each Olympiad, photojournalists begin sharing images of decrepit stadiums falling apart. But, while these ghost-venues have a haunted appeal to them, that isn’t the only undesirable fate that befalls post-Olympics ballparks. For most venues, especially the big ones, there are three possible outcomes: abandonment, implosion, or costly maintenance. Some stadiums manage to achieve all three, but only the rarest avoid these fates. Let’s get started.

Pyeongchang 2018

Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium 2018
Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium 2018 by Kim Youngjoon is licensed under CC-BY

Thanks to COVID, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, were the last Olympiad that we’ve seen. The Games themselves were hailed as a success. They brought unprecedented attention to a region of South Korea that was previously unfamiliar to the outside world. After all, the county has just 40,000 residents. So, maintaining a 35,000 seat stadium must have seemed preposterous from the very beginning. There wouldn’t be a major soccer team to fill the seats in the following years. No A-list k-pop group would have Pyeongchang on their tour. So, the committee simply demolished the stadium days after the Olympics ended. 

The Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium cost about 109 million dollars to build and was used four times. The cost per hour of use was a whopping 10 million dollars. To some critics, this was seen as the ultimate waste and a proverbial middle finger to the cities and committees that spend millions of dollars maintaining old stadiums. Perhaps there’s some truth to that claim, but Pyeongchang did its best to be as resourceful as possible.

Since the arena was planned for demolition, architects and engineers cut costs by excluding features considered essential in most stadiums. There’s no roof or heating, despite its location in the middle of a frigid mountain range. While most Olympic committees do their best not to spare a single cost, Pyeongchang spared everything they could. 

Despite their best efforts, though, the Olympics weren’t exactly a celebration of sustainability. Several other Pyeongchang venues were demolished shortly after their use. For almost all of these structures, crews had to chop down dozens of acres of a thousand-year-old forest. Now, where the diverse and historical wood once stood, there’s nothing but an ugly patch of scorched earth, an 800,000 square meter scar in the local ecosystem, constantly reminding locals of what they gave up for two weeks of tourism.

While the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium became the first made-to-demolish venue to host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, construction is still being paid for. That’s because no one can agree on just who it is that needs to pay for it. The Korean government has insisted that Pyeongchang county, one of the poorest municipalities in South Korea, pay for upkeep for the remaining empty stadiums. The county sued the federal government, claiming it’s not their burden to bear. The battle will continue to play out in the Korean court system for years to come, demonstrating another kind of mess that hosting the Olympics can create.

Rio 2016

2016 Summer Olympics, Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
2016 Summer Olympics, Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Rafael Henrique Serra is licensed under CC-BY-SA

While many Olympic venues are erected explicitly for the Games, some hosts renovate older stadiums. That was the case in Rio de Janeiro, an Olympiad notorious for mismanagement. The center attraction at Rio was Maracaña Stadium, which hosted the Opening and Closing ceremonies. The ballpark was built more than 70 years ago for the 1950 World Cup. In the competition’s final match, the stadium held an unprecedented 198,000 fans for a game between Brazil and Uruguay.

When Brazil hosted the World Cup again in 2014, an event worthy of its own Sideprojects video, the stadium was shut down for two years for a 500-million dollar renovation. The restoration resulted in a beautiful, 78,000 spectator stadium, which went on to host a magnificent Opening Ceremony. Then, months after the Games’ close, the historic, half-billion-dollar arena was falling apart. 

The descent into disorder began with robbery and vandalism. The stadium’s main entrance boasted a statue of a Brazilian journalist named Mario Filho (feel-yo), the man the stadium was officially named after. The sculpture disappeared weeks after the games. Local mischief-makers tore out 8,000 seats and pilfered pricey memorabilia.

But it wasn’t just the neighbors who were causing problems. It was also the owners. This became clear when the local power company shut off the building’s electricity six months after the closing ceremony. That’s because the ownership group owed the utility company almost a million dollars. The soccer pitch was browning, as worms had moved in and destroyed the soil.

In perhaps the understatement of the century, the Rio Olympics’ President said, “We admit we need to make some repairs. We know they are our obligation and that we are a bit behind, but these things shouldn’t keep the stadium from functioning.” A local judge disagreed. He shut down the stadium due to safety concerns.

Thankfully, Maracaña’s fortunes eventually changed. A local investment group purchased the rights to operate the stadium, investing tens of millions of dollars for repairs and maintenance. Today, it hosts two top-flight Brazilian football teams, Fluminese and Flamengo. Flamengo fans regularly pack the stadium to its capacity.

Sochi 2014

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games by Korea.net is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Sochi Winter Olympics were, without a doubt, the biggest sh*show (ALTERNATE: dumpster fire) in the history of the Winter Games. This one Olympiad cost more than all of the previous winter games combined, reaching a final price tag of at least 51-billion dollars. Like Pyeongchang, Sochi is a perfect example of the problem with investing so much money building infrastructure in an area with a relatively low population. Unlike Pyeongchang, few of the venues in Sochi were demolished because Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to turn the subtropical summer resort town into the country’s winter event center. Unfortunately for the people of the region, this hasn’t been the case. 

Sochi’s venues and Olympic Village now lay dormant. But, the most compelling story within the city is that of Fisht Olympic Stadium. When the stadium was first built, it was designed only to host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. In other words, it wasn’t outfitted to host a single sporting event, as it couldn’t fit a regulation size field or track. The 40,000 person arena, which cost 780 million dollars to build, had to be renovated within a year of completion to host football matches for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Now, before we continue disparaging this stadium, we must point out that it’s absolutely gorgeous. At each end of the field is a large opening, providing breathtaking views of the scenery. To the north, spectators can see the Krasnaya Polyana Mountains, while the shimmering Black Sea lies to the south. The arena hosted six World Cup games and was praised as the most beautiful venue of that tournament. However, today, it’s known as the place where football clubs go to die. 

In an attempt to justify the millions of dollars in annual costs, and the hundreds of millions of dollars for construction, the Russian Football Federation has attempted to relocate six different teams to Sochi. Most of these teams could hardly fill more than 10 percent of the stadium, and several of them literally shut down. FC Sochi withdrew from competitive football after playing a single game in the stadium. Then, Vladimir Putin swooped in to save the day. 

The President’s former judo partner, billionaire Boris Rotenberg, relocated his second-tier team Dynamo St. Petersburg to Sochi. With continuous investment by their oligarchic owner and a bit of help from the government, the team has survived for more than two years. In fact, they’ve thrived, earning promotion to the top-tier of Russian football, where they finished twelfth last year. Of course, the average attendance for their home matches is about 8,000 spectators, barely more than 20 percent of the stadium. Still, despite being an almost 1 billion dollar money pit, the stadium is standing and operating today.

Atlanta 1996

Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games
Atlanta 1996 by John Sherwell is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The story of the Atlanta Summer Olympics of ’96 is a bit different from the rest of our examples here. The Atlanta Games were, financially, a success, and the stadium, the Georgia Dome, remained in use for more than two decades after the Olympics. So why is it on this list? Because just a few years ago, it was blasted to the ground. 

At the time of its inauguration in 1992, the Georgia Dome was the world’s second-largest covered stadium. The 214-million dollar arena could hold 80,000 spectators. It hosted more than 1,400 events in its 25 years in operation, including two Super Bowls and college basketball’s Final Four. The building had a vast 227 by 185-meter footprint. So, the stadium was massive and successful. But there was one problem. It wasn’t particularly nice or modern.

The stadium housed the local NFL club, the Atlanta Falcons. By 2010, the Falcons ownership determined that they wanted a more high-tech arena. So, they chose to demolish the Georgia Dome.

The demolition couldn’t happen until the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a 1.5-billion dollar venture, was completed. This gave the Georgia Dome crew the time they needed to prep for the implosion. The process of preparing the Dome for demolition took more than 10,000 man-hours, as the team placed 2,000 kilograms of explosives throughout the building. The brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium stood less than 25 meters away, so construction crews had to build a wall between the two colosseums to ensure that their new structure remained undamaged. It took all of 10 seconds from the push of the plunger for the Georgia Dome to fully implode.

While the Georgia Dome may not seem to fit in with the rest of these stories, it actually tells us something important about Olympic stadiums— even in the best-case scenario, they’re doomed.

Sarajevo 1984

Sarajevo Zetra Hall, Olympic 1984
Sarajevo Zetra Hall by Julian Nyča is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics and the corresponding venues hold a unique place in this list. At the time, the host nation was Yugoslavia, but that wouldn’t last long. With that country’s dissolution and the eventual civil war in Bosnia, the local Olympic venues earned an unusual distinction.

The Olympic Stadium Koševo was built in the late 40s and early 50s. It was regularly maintained leading up to the Olympics in ’84, playing a pivotal role in keeping the costs of the games remarkably low. In the years following the Olympics, the stadium hosted the Yugoslav First Football League, though many of the rest of the Olympic venues fell into disrepair. When the Bosnian Civil War broke out in 1992, the infrastructure became part of the battlefield. 

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in modern world history. The Bosnian-Serbs used the abandoned bobsled track as a home for their artillery. Soldiers drilled into the structure to provide additional support for the battery. The ski jumps, now riddled with bullet holes, were also used as an artillery base.

Throughout the war, various troops used the main stadium as an outpost. They filtered in and out as the large arena became an easy target for incoming missiles. When United Nations troops moved in, the bombed-out Olympic Stadium Koševo became a critical position for the French force. With the war’s end in 1995, the city was practically left in ruins. But they rebuilt. By 1997, the stadium was completely renovated and repaired, even hosting its largest crowd ever for a U2 concert.

With more than 10,000 dead in the Civil War, makeshift cemeteries were built throughout the city. Today, the fields surrounding the stadium are a sober reminder of all those who died in the conflict.

Montreal 1976

The Montreal Olympics are the oldest entry on our list. In many ways, these were the first modern games. They were ridiculously expensive and led to a whole lot of unnecessary infrastructure. Still, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was, and still is, an eye-catching arena. Nicknamed the Big O for its donut shape, the stadium was built initially to host a new Major League Baseball team, the Montreal Expos. But, it also played a crucial role in drawing the Olympics to the French-Canadian city in ’76. The stadium cost more than 600 million dollars to build before it was opened, at which time it was still incomplete.

Part of the reason it was so expensive is that the stadium was among the first ever to incorporate a retractable roof. The ceiling was controlled by a set of cables in the attached Montreal Tower, which is, to this day, the tallest inclined structure in the world at 175 meters. Aside from the massive indoor stadium, which can host football, baseball, and other sports, the stadium also incorporated the Olympic swimming pool and the cycling velodrome. 

While the Olympics themselves were a triumph, the Olympic Stadium was immediately deemed a massive failure. First of all, the roof wasn’t built in time for the Olympics. A series of unfortunate events led to the 66-ton top not being finished until 1987. At that time, it could only be moved in winds below 40 km/h, a bit of inconvenience considering it was typically needed in extreme weather. Even when in place, it wasn’t particularly effective. The tower that controls the structure partially collapsed in 1986, with a massive chunk of debris falling onto the playing field. Thankfully, no one was in the stadium at the time. The roof itself has been damaged in some way, torn or otherwise, 7,453 times.

All of these issues have meant that the investment into the stadium never ends. Today, the total cost is measured at over 1.2 billion dollars, though many people say it’s much higher than that. To make matters even worse, since 2004, when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington DC, the arena hasn’t had a permanent resident. It hosts soccer or hockey matches, but only rare occasions. It may bring in 50-million dollars in its busiest years, but the typical revenue is closer to 20-million. 

Of course, that would mean it would break even eventually, but only if costs slowed down. Given the roof’s terrible condition, the ownership group was told in 2017 that they needed to spend another 250 million dollars on building a newer, safer one. Critics say, tear the stadium to the ground. The response is simple—estimates for demolishing the building place costs at more than half a billion dollars. 

Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is perhaps the purest example of just how wrong Olympic venues can go. It’s arguably the first white elephant— too expensive to tear down, yet almost entirely empty— a symbol of the money pit that is the Olympic games.

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