Olympic stadiums…the good, the bad, and the ugly

The opening of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and recent news items about the lack of use of the spectacular “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Bejing prompted me to do a little research as to the fates of Olympic stadiums past. I was particularly interested in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal–the only one of these stadiums I have ever been to. The results reveal a surprising spectrum of utility.

Some of these stadiums are now historic landmarks. This applies to the Los Angeles Memorial Stadium, the only stadium to host two Olympics; and the Panathinaiko stadium in Athens (built entirely of marble, and the site of the first modern Olympic games in 1896, this stadium was also used in ancient Greece as the site of athletic competitions).

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin survived almost completely unscathed from WWII (given that up to 90% of Berlin was destroyed, this counts as a minor miracle). It was used for soccer matches after WWII before being renovated in the 90s; it hosted the final game of the World Cup in 2006. Given its connection with Nazi Germany, the fact that it was restored in a historically sensitive manner is quite amazing.

Some stadiums used in the Olympics are now completely gone in their original forms. Wembley Stadium was not purpose-built for the 1948 Olympics–it was already a landmark by the time those Games took place. The old Wembley was torn down and replaced by a new Wembley in 2007.

Most Olympic stadiums seem to have fared fairly well. Almost all of those in Europe and Asia are used for soccer. The stadium from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was converted for baseball. This was also the intended use of Olympic Stadium in Montreal–but the Expos are now gone, and the “Big O” is now used very little.

As originally designed, the stadium was considered a masterpiece for its inclined tower and unique retractable roof, one of the first in the world. However, due to strikes and the difficulties of the design, the stadium was not completed in time for the Olympics, so instead of the silhouette you can see in the photo above, this is what you saw:

Note the rather flimsy crane that held the spot that should have been occupied by the soaring, inclined tower.

Work on building the tower began again in the 80s, suffering more delays due both a fire and an accident where a piece of the tower fell onto the field during a Montreal Expos game. The original retractable roof was installed in 1987–and subsequently ripped. The roof was eventually closed permanently and eventually replaced, but continued to suffer problems.

The stadium was finally paid off in 2006, but the Montreal Expos were already gone. Now the stadium hosts the occasional CFL game (including a recent Grey Cup), concerts, and conventions. It is still plagued by leaks and structural issues, and is apparently grimy and not aging well. And Montrealers are ambivalent towards it–some see it as an architectural treasure; others as the visible sign of the huge debt the Games incurred.

In 1976, just a couple of weeks after the Games ended, my family visited Montreal. I had become a confirmed Olympics junkie that year; visiting Montreal to see the venues was almost like attending in person. It wasn’t that long after the Games had wrapped up, and I remember many of the gift stores were still open (I got a T-shirt and a keychain with the mascot). But I specifically remember touring the stadium, seeing the swimming pools and looking out over the field where Bruce Jenner had won the decathalon (remember when the decathalon was a big deal?) At the time, I had no idea that the stadium wasn’t finished.

The Big O isn’t a ruin yet, although parts of it have definitely declined. It remains to be seen what will happen in its future. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it, with all its flaws