8 Ways to Make Olympic Stadiums Useful After the Games End

 
 
For many cities that host the Olympic Games, the central stadium is nothing more than a white elephant after the competition ends. Stephen A. Greyser and Isao Okada pinpoint actions cities can take to give them new life.
 
 
by Julia Hanna
Beijing National Stadium, also called the "Bird's Nest," has been in use since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (bingdian)

Few sporting events can equal the pageantry, scale, and drama of the Olympic Games. When an Olympic host city is announced, champagne flows and confetti flies. But after the torch has been extinguished and the athletes and spectators have gone home, the stadium built to host the opening ceremonies and other events—usually at enormous cost—remains.

In After the Carnival: Key Factors to Enhance Olympic Legacy and Prevent Olympic Sites from Becoming White Elephants, Isao Okada of Osaka Seikei Univerity and HBS marketing professor emeritus Stephen A. Greyser—a longtime student and observer of the Olympics—conducted extensive field research at 10 of the 12 Summer Olympics sites since the 1972 Munich Games to determine the factors that contribute to a stadium’s ongoing viability. (Exclusions included the 1980 Moscow Games and 2016 Rio Games, which were deemed too recent to present a clear picture.)

The cost of constructing Olympic stadiums when combined with the necessary infrastructure and transportation investments can result in eye-popping costs; the 2008 Beijing Games topped out at a whopping $40 billion. Taxpayers have taken note. Citizen pressure resulted in Boston, Budapest, Hamburg, and Rome withdrawing their campaigns to win the 2024 summer games to be held in Paris. And Tokyo, the 2020 host city, scrapped its original stadium design for one with lower construction costs after many Japanese recoiled at its projected $2.7 billion price tag.

"Hosting the Olympics, especially the larger Summer Games, is a globally recognized initiative for nation-branding via big sport"

Given the economic and political stakes, Okada and Greyser’s research—which draws on some 30 field interviews with key site managers—demystifies the factors that prevent an Olympic site from becoming a white elephant.

“Hosting the Olympics, especially the larger Summer Games, is a globally recognized initiative for nation-branding via big sport,” Greyser says. “China in 2008 and Nazi Germany in 1936 are principal illustrations. But far less attention has been paid to what makes for a successful post-Games legacy.”

To determine a stadium’s level of reuse, they analyzed annual attendance figures (e.g. from tourists) and the number of operating days at each site, post-Olympics. Renovations made after the Games, they discovered, were a key factor in a venue’s sustainability—specifically, removing features such as a track and reducing the stadium’s capacity.

Ongoing reinvestment was another. In Atlanta, host of the 1996 Games, Centennial Olympic Stadium (with 85,600 seats) was reconfigured into Turner Field, capacity 50,000, over a period of seven months and a cost of $200 million. The retrofit worked well for 20 years, when the site served as home to the Atlanta Braves baseball team. However, it failed to keep the team beyond the initial lease when necessary improvements weren’t made to the facility. In addition, the site’s access to public transportation was generally poor.

Major Renovations After the Olympic Games and Major Tenants

 

A bird's nest helps

In one counterintuitive finding, Okada noted his surprise that the presence of anchor tenants was not the most significant determining factor in a site’s sustainability. Instead, successful redevelopment of the area surrounding the stadium, or an easily recognizable design (such as Beijing’s Bird’s Nest) had a greater impact on a venue’s future viability.

In other findings, the presence of a nearby competing venue had a negative effect on an Olympic site’s viability, not surprisingly, as did the weight of a past or ongoing financial burden and the general public malaise surrounding a site’s disuse. Montreal, for example, didn’t finish paying off debt for its stadium (referred to as “the big O” or sometimes “the big owe”) until 2006.

A sense of Olympic legacy, however, has an obvious positive effect. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games, has seen continued use as an athletic venue and a recognized city landmark and will host events at the 2028 Games as well.

Despite the cost involved, competition to host the Olympics will no doubt continue. Political and financial risks aside, it’s hard to think of a more visible branding opportunity for a city or country, Greyser says. Now, with 45 years of hindsight and analysis of what has come before, those leading the charge for a city’s Olympic bid can do so with a clearer sense of what things could look like after the party’s over.

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

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