Sports Facilities

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From Sports Venues to White Elephants: Cities Consider Repurposing

3 Jun, 2015

By: Tracey Schelmetic

While some former Olympic host cities make the most out of the infrastructure built for the games – Lake Placid, New York, host of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, still uses many of the venues purpose-built for the events – in other cases, the expensive ceremonial and sporting complexes are left to decay. In these latter cases, they stand as a reminder of money that a nation’s or region’s citizens could ill afford.

Athens, Greece is one of the latter cities. The country is currently struggling under an economic crisis, and the venues built to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games are falling apart in neglect. For many, the problem isn’t the initial investment that was laid out to build the infrastructure, but the failure to take advantage of the facilities after the Olympic Games.

“While economists agree it would be unfair to blame the meltdown on the 17-day Games, the post-Olympic era is seen as a decade of lost opportunities — including failure to significantly boost the country’s sporting culture,” wrote the Associated Press in an article last year. “It’s a lesson to which Brazil may pay heed, as it races to complete projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.”

Brazil is no stranger to “white elephant” sports projects. Last year’s World Cup soccer event in Brasilia, the most expensive ever hosted, has already left the city coping with unused stadiums and unfinished infrastructure projects, including a commuter railway project that remains mired in political scandal and corruption allegations. Maintenance of unused facilities – which in some cases are being occupied by homeless citizens – is draining the coffers of the nation’s capital. Many Brazilians fear the same will befall its expensive new Olympic venues in Rio.

Perhaps one the saddest images of former Olympic venues are those in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Constructed for the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, some of the structures were strategic points during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, with the former bobsled and luge track used for artillery positions and the remains of the Olympic podium used as a site of executions during the siege of Sarajevo.

For many countries, what they do with the venues after the closing ceremonies are over is the factor that determines whether they recoup their investment. Some countries use the facilities to host the Special Olympics, the Paralympic Games, the Goodwill Games or other international championships, or make them home to local sports teams. The distinctive indoor cycling venue constructed in Montreal for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games was converted into an indoor nature park after the games, and ultimately became the home of Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos before their move to Washington, DC several years ago. The Olympic Village in Moscow, constructed for the controversial 1980 Winter Olympic Games, was converted to residential apartments that are still in use today.

It’s not just Olympic venues that need to be addressed, however. According to an article in the Miami Herald, a plan is being studied to allow a private operator to manage Florida’s presently deserted Miami Marine Stadium, although the city would be able to build an $18 million park and event space on the stadium grounds. The area surrounding the concrete waterfront would undergo a revitalization project as well.

Beijing, host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, has been very clever at repurposing some of its former venues. The National Aquatic Center built for the games, where U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals, has been altered into the “Happy Magic Water Cube Water Park,” and features water slides, wave pools and a “lazy river.” It has become a popular destination for city residents. China’s Xinhua news agency reported that the aqueous amusement park was designed to bring renewed interest and draw more tourists to the often ghost town-like Olympic grounds.

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