Despite promises, the London Olympics is set to leave us with a legacy of unwanted buildings. We should cut costs and have flatpack movable stadia, says Ross Clark
The complex used for the 1908 Olympics became known as White City. For 2012, the challenge is not to create a White Elephant City. While gymnastics can impress and beach volleyball entertain, the Olympic sport that has spectators truly gasping is property development. It has become almost a cliché that each Olympic city be left with a host of monumental venues that were built to sell the host city to the world but that lie empty for years while citizens struggle to pay the bill.
Even before the credit crunch, London 2012 was conceived as the Olympic Games that would put an end to the gargantuan waste. In contrast to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium — now used mainly as a tourist attraction — London’s was to be a model of economy and adaptability, built from a Meccano-like lattice which with the aid of a few spanners could be reduced from 80,000 to 25,000 seats once the Olympic flame had gone out. In contrast to Athens, which had few plans for its venues post-Games, the word ‘legacy’ was heavily used in London’s bid in order to counter critics who feared being left with unwanted facilities. More recently, the Olympic Legacy Company was established to manage use of the permanent venues following the Games.
Yet with little more than a year to go the legacy seems far from secure, and the claim for economy is looking shaky. One of the first acts of the Olympic Legacy Company was to consider razing the £496 million main stadium to the ground so that Tottenham Hotspur Football Club could build a dedicated football stadium, without running track, in its place. After an outcry, West Ham football club, which will keep the track, has now been declared the main bidder. But the figures quoted by West Ham are astounding: the club says it will have to spend £95 million converting the stadium for football. How can it possibly cost so much — not a lot less than it cost to build Manchester’s 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium from scratch? When I challenged the legacy company on the costs, I was told that the seats in the lower tier of the stadium are too sunken to be used for premiership football. So much for adaptability.
Besides an athletics stadium, London should be left with the legacy of an aquatics centre — a £268 million structure that will be reduced from 17,500 to 3,500 seats following the removal of two temporary wings. It should have a 7,500-seat multi-use sports centre — a £44 million copper-clad building designed for handball, modern pentathalon and fencing during the Games but which can be adapted for all kinds of cultural uses. There should also be a £94 million, 3,500-seat Velodrome and a 3,000-seat hockey stadium.
But then these were the sort of promises made in Athens after 2004. There, the post-Olympic farce gets worse and worse. The legacy of the 2004 Games, which cost £9 billion to stage, has been a very large bill but little sport. The website of Hellenic Olympic Properties — the quango set up to find uses for the venues after the Games — reads like that of an overenthusiastic estate agent. ‘The venue is able to seat up to 5,700 spectators,’ reads the entry for the Ano Liosia Olympic Hall, which staged wrestling and judo during the 2004 Games, ‘while the dimensions of the event area are able to accommodate a wide range of sports.’ You just want to add: ‘And the third bedroom/landing has great potential.’ The likelihood of the hall ever getting 5,700 bums on seats is remote: most of the Olympic venues, built when the euros were flowing freely and no one bothered who was going to pick up the tab for the government’s soaring debt, have lain unused since the doors closed in 2004, with gypsy encampments running up to their barred gates.
Yet there has been one success. Besides the media centre, since converted into the Golden Hall shopping centre, and the main Olympic stadium, which is used for football matches and rock concerts, the only venue from 2004 in regular use is the badminton hall at the Goudi Complex just to the north-east of Athens city centre. In 2006, the building was taken on by Michael and Vanessa Adam, who ran a theatre production company in New York. They and their business associates signed a 20-year lease with Hellenic Olympic Properties, paying €750,000 rent a year, and invested €15 million to turn the venue into the 2,400-seat Badminton Theatre, which is the only theatre of its size in Greece. Since opening in 2007, the theatre has run a full programme of shows and is profitable without a single euro of subsidy.
It is only natural, therefore, that the Greek government should decide it wants to demolish the theatre. The Goudi site stands on a former military base which has long been zoned for a municipal park, but rather than making the theatre a centrepiece of the park — like that, for example, in Holland Park — the environment minister Tina Birbili has ruled that its construction there was illegal and therefore it must go, regardless of the lease signed with Hellenic Olympic Properties. If there weren’t many investors coming forward to make use of the 2004 venues, there aren’t going to be any now.
Only political vanity explains why, given the misery visited upon the taxpayers of virtually every Olympic city, there are still cities queuing up to stage the Games. There is a fundamental problem with the Olympic Games in that it forces host cities to accommodate 20 minority sports in venues seating thousands of people. While cities can make use of the odd multi-use venue after the Games, no city on Earth is going to find regular crowds of 7,000 people for handball and badminton matches.
Why can’t the Games be staged over six weeks so that the same venue can be used for handball, basketball, weightlifting, etc., and the athletes’ village be shrunken? Or why can we not have flatpack stadia capable of being packed up and shipped from one Olympics to the next? In one respect, London is setting an example of how it might be possible to host an Olympics without breaking the bank and being left with an embarrassing legacy. While eyes have been on the construction of the London 2012 stadium and Aquatics Centre, the 12,000-seat basketball arena has popped up virtually from nowhere. The PVC-sheathed structure is not going to be part of the physical legacy of the 2012 Games. It was designed as a temporary structure by Barr Construction, a Glasgow-based firm, which will take it down after the Games and sell it on, possibly to the organisers of the Rio Games in 2016, who have already expressed an interest.
While estimates for most 2012 venues have been steadily rising, the cost of the basketball arena keeps falling. Costed at £58 million in 2007, by last year’s quarterly report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the estimate had fallen to £42 million. The cost of designing and building the basic structure, according to Barr, was just £6 million.
Rather than grandiose buildings out of which we try to create awkward legacies, why don’t we have an Olympics which, like the Big Top, packs up and leaves town after the event? The model for the Olympics should not be Athens, Beijing or London but Barnum and Bailey.