London signals end of white elephants

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Olympics_aerial2

REUTERS

An aerial view of Olympic Park in Stratford.

London – Future host cities of the world's biggest sporting events will look to emulate the London Olympics' use of temporary venues and stadia as the global financial crisis heightens the danger of building expensive white elephants.

Rio de Janeiro, which took the 2016 host baton from London in a star-studded closing ceremony on Sunday, and 2022 World Cup host Qatar are among cities taking notes from the UK capital, which held the most 'temporary' Olympic Games in history.

“London is being used as a blueprint and we're working with a number of Olympic and World Cup bidding cities or host cities to take a similar approach,” said Christopher Lee, director at architecture firm Populous, which designed the London Olympic stadium.

They include Rio, Sochi in Russia which is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Nanjing in China where the 2014 Youth Olympics will be held.

While the Beijing, Athens and Sydney games relied heavily on permanent sites, 257,000 out of 745,100 seats in London's 34 Olympics venues will be dismantled after the Games leave town, equal to the total number removed in the three previous games combined, Populous data showed.

Of the 34 venues, only eight are permanent new-build structures and will be scaled down, including the 80,000-seat Olympic stadium which can be reduced to seat 25,000.

Seven venues, including the 12,000-seat basketball arena, are temporary, while the rest already existed.

“The difference between London and others is that we've taken amazing care with our legacy preparations,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told reporters last Thursday. “We are unlike other host cities at this stage, where six of the eight venues already have their futures assured.”

London's biggest risk is ensuring a future use for the main stadium, subject of a fraught bidding process that has witnessed legal challenges and deadline extensions.

Local football club West Ham United is the favourite, but that bid carries conditions related to ensuring the stadium, which must retain its athletics running track, works well for football with seating of 60,000.

The stadium has drawn interest from football, cricket and rugby teams and even Formula One racing, but there is still no contract signed to ensure its future.

Olympics history is littered with cautionary tales of host cities vying to build bigger and better venues as budgets spiral.

Greece built or upgraded 36 venues at an estimated cost of more than $14.8 billion when it hosted the Athens Olympics in 2004. Almost all are now derelict and graffiti-covered after repeated failures to lease them out.

Beijing, which hosted a spectacular summer Olympics opening ceremony in 2008, has struggled to find tenants or generate revenue from most of the 32 Olympic venues in Beijing, 12 of which it built for the Games.

And South Africa has faced similar problems in filling the 10 stadiums it built and upgraded at an estimated $2.2 billion to host the month-long 2010 World Cup.

While construction costs for temporary venues are broadly similar to permanent ones, there are no expensive longer-term maintenance costs, said project manager Duncan Firth of Deloitte , which advised the London organisers.

Greece's Olympic building frenzy has left the debt-riddled country with an expensive maintenance tab – costs were reportedly $124 million in 2005 – while Beijing's Water Cube swimming venue, lost an estimated $1.7 million last year.

“With some of these permanent venues they cost so much to maintain and manage that they have no viable commercial use and the land can have a negative value,” said James Graven, a partner in Deloitte's real estate strategy team.

Rio intends to build only nine permanent sites and six temporary venues, according to bid proposals sent to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It will host most events in existing stadiums, and there are talks about re-erecting the London Olympic basketball arena in Rio. A Brazilian Olympic official told Reuters last month he was looking to London not Beijing for inspiration on issues including infrastructure.

Saioa Sancho, project manager for Madrid's 2020 Olympic master plan bid, said it planned to build just 6 permanent and 2 temporary venues as 84 percent of the sites already existed. She took notes on issues like spaces around venues and infrastructure on a trip to London during the Games, she said.

The IOC is also increasingly aware of the importance of what happens once the Games leave town, said Paul Mitchell, executive director of sport at consultancy Arcadis which advised on the construction of London Olympic stadium.

“The IOC is trying to get away from being the devil that's forcing countries to build white elephants,” he said. “They have stepped up their requirements for legacy and ensuring that countries provide things in a responsible and economic way.”

“It goes without saying that we will pass on London's venue successes to future host cities,” an IOC spokesman told Reuters. The growing use of temporary venues will also enable smaller countries to bid for events, removing the need to deal with huge leftover infrastructure the country doesn't need, said Graven.

That was the case for Qatar, which plans to renovate three and build nine new stadiums for the World Cup before removing as many as 170,000 seats and one entire stadium. World soccer's governing body Fifa cited its temporary venues as one reason the small, resource-rich country won the 2022 World Cup.

Temporary venues are also greener venues, said Mitchell.

In addition to possibly shipping its basketball stadium to Brazil, London is in talks with organisers of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games about transferring venues and spoke to Chicago about reusing seats from the Olympic stadium had the American city won the 2016 bid.

Elsewhere, over 4,000 tonnes of sand from the beach volleyball arena in Horse Guards Parade near Buckingham Palace will be given to six London community sports centres.

“It's going to be the way forward as more cities become concerned about their image,” said Mitchell. “When anybody thinks of the Athens Olympics, all they see are rusty stadiums and a swimming pool with weeds growing out of it.” – Reuters


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