Why it’s innovative—not wasteful—to destroy the Pyeongchang Olympic stadium

Bring on the wrecking ball…
Bring on the wrecking ball…
Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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In the past, Olympic host cities spent billions of dollars on grandiose structures that soon become “white elephants.” Montreal’s “Big O” Olympic stadium, used for the 1976 games, currently costs the Canadian province about $32 million to maintain each year and has never been able to pay for itself, despite its afterlife hosting trade shows and movie shoots. More recently, Athens and Rio de Janeiro each saw their Olympic venues deteriorate soon after the games concluded.

This year’s Winter Olympics host, Pyeongchang, is taking a different tack.

The most visible of the South Korean county’s new venues is the 35,000-seat Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. After being used four times in total, including at this Sunday’s closing ceremony, and next month’s Paralympics, the plan is to tear it apart. Some might argue that demolishing a brand-new stadium is wasteful. But it’s one of basically two ideas—at opposite ends of the spectrum—for how to host large-scale games more economically.

The temporary stadium

Increasingly, cities are thinking about short-term or “pop-up” stadiums, not a structure that’ll last for decades.

Rather than let a venue fall into inevitable disrepair, the logic goes, it’s better to build in a short shelf life. That allows you to skip things you’d include in a long-term structure and keep costs down. According to the Pyeongchang organizing committee, Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza cost about $110 million, including $75 million for the stadium.

By comparison, Russia’s Fisht Olympic Stadium cost around $600 million to build, and Tokyo’s new national stadium for the 2020 games is expected to cost $1.5 billion. The Pyeongchang stadium is no-frills: for example, it features no roof and no heating. Given Pyeongchang’s frigid climate, that’s impractical for long-term use.

Not that demolition is an easy option. One reason Montreal’s stadium hasn’t been demolished, for example, is that experts don’t see demolition costing less than $100 million, and possibly much, much more. (The Pyeongchang committee referred Quartz’s queries on the cost and time-frame for the dismantling to the county.)

Outside the Olympics, Qatar, which will host the World Cup in 2022, is pursuing a different approach to “temporary.” Plans unveiled late last year show the 40,000-seat Ras Abu Aboud Stadium is modular, built out of shipping containers so it can be disassembled and reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle, possibly at other locations.

It’s not clear how much the project will cost. The World Cup organizing committee in Qatar and Fenwick Iribarren Architects, the designer of the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium, didn’t respond to Quartz’s request for an interview.

Benjamin S. Flowers, a professor of architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology, says other event holders may be wary of relying on Qatar’s modular materials because megasport venues must be built to specific standards depending on their location and use. “My guess is that Qatar will end up donating these to another country,” Flowers told Quartz.

The reusable stadium isn’t a completely untried concept, though.

In Switzerland, organizers of the 2013 Wrestling and Alpine Festival commissioned a temporary 50,000-seat venue, built by Nussli Group. Nussli also made a temporary 20,168-seat venue as a short-lived home for Fortuna Düsseldorf, a German soccer league, that cost only $3.9 million. A Nussli spokesperson said that the Düsseldorf soccer stadium’s cost was so low because it uses its own existing scaffolding material, which it rents out to organizers of different events. “Were we to produce this scaffolding material every time completely new for a stadium, the final costs would be higher of course,” she told Quartz.

That makes it hard to compare these structures to the Pyeongchang stadium or other venues that most likely rely on new building materials. Flowers adds that the International Olympic Committee “requires vast infrastructure to support all sorts of media, medical, hospitality, and other uses in ‘back of the house’ operations that require a lot more built elements” which re-usable stadium providers don’t always specialize in.

Nor do rented, re-usable structures contribute to the host economy by sending business to local construction firms. Given these competing demands, there’s some logic to Pyeongchang’s approach.

Flowers says that the Pyeongchang organizers deserve “some credit for being a lot more modest in their outlook” regarding the stadium’s future. After all, the county’s population is only slightly greater than the stadium’s seating capacity. But, for an architect, building something designed to be destroyed is a tough approach to truly accept.

“I think it’s a short-term win, but in the long run, it’s probably a loss,” he says. “As a kind of model, I find it deeply problematic that you would invest this much time and effort in building something only to tear it down.”

Idea two: Let the Olympics settle down

Arguably, the most effective way to prevent the “white elephant” problem at the Olympics would require a complete overhaul of the way the competition runs.

Rather than holding the games in a different city every few years, this argument goes, the games should be held in a single location, allowing organizers to reuse set facilities over and over. One obvious choice for that would be Athens. For one thing, the games originated in Greece. Moreover, given the country’s economic situation, holding the games permanently there could provide it a source of recurring income, as people might travel to the city regularly for the games.

Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University who researches megaprojects, argues that bringing the Olympics to a single location would also improve efficiencies because organizers would always have another chance to make the next one run smoother and cheaper.

“If you look at events like the Tour de France that are put on over and over by the same organizers, they get very good at doing it,” he says. With the Olympics,”you’re always giving it to beginners that have never tried it, or if they’ve done it before, it’s so many decades ago that the experience they gained is not relevant.”

The International Olympic Committee is unlikely to welcome this solution. Keeping the Olympics in a single host would potentially give local organizers more control over the games than the IOC itself. It could also leave the games vulnerable to the political or economic problems a country faces at a given time. Instead, to keep the Olympics’ current roving model going, it’s making reforms aimed at allaying the fears of potential hosts, after cities withdrew bids for the 2024 games over resistance from citizens.

The IOC says it has been working with host cities to improve the use they get out of their Olympics venues, and reduce budgets. The 2024 games eventually went to Paris, whose bid relies largely on already built and temporary venues, and plans to hold events in underserved areas, for a budget of about $8 billion.

“There is clear evidence that when a host city decides to build only infrastructure that is aligned with its long-term development goals the legacy benefits are really strong,” an IOC representative told Quartz, saying it now seeks details four years in advance on plans for future use, funding, and ownership. The IOC this month also unveiled reforms to make hosting cheaper, including greater flexibility when it comes to venue size.

There are signs all the messaging about frugality is having some effect.

Beijing’s 2008 summer extravaganza cost over $40 billion, at least 700% more than a revised budget estimate, while the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics costs totalled more than $50 billion, 325% more than budgeted, Although it too suffered significant cost over-runs, South Korea spent $13 billion on the 2018 games, according to the organizing committee. That’s only about 60% more than initially budgeted.

Tripti Lahiri contributed to this post.