Commercialization of Olympics venues reduces historic appeal

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Today, international multi-sport competitions, such as the Olympics, are more than just mega-scale sporting events. The melange of larger-than-life venues, extravagant fireworks displays, and over-the-top opening and closing ceremonies bear testimony to this.

Even more regional events like the Asian, Canadian, and Pan American games cause a stir among the inhabitants of those regions. However, this hype doesn’t stem from patriotic sentiment or the mere excitement of spectators watching their favorite teams in competition. Rather, it is the overwhelming manifestation of such events via billion-dollar venues that draw the crowd’s attention, both on a national and global level. But recently, the cheering sports crowds don’t seem to be the intended audience of these elaborate constructions.

Under the watchful eye of deliberative giants such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), host cities strive to form top-notch local games committees with one goal in sight: To one-up the previously held event in the series, increasingly through the architecture and infrastructure developed for the current games.

Whether it be the visually arresting “Bird’s Nest” stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the strikingly enormous Khalifa International Stadium that was the focal venue of the 15th Doha Asian Games in Qatar, national games committees seek to be legendary. Opening ceremonies earn those venues their moments of fame, while closing ceremonies diminish their urgent demand for appraisal and awe. After the games conclude, these venues then blend into the busy infrastructure of the host city, seemingly becoming mere landmarks for disoriented motorists. Meanwhile, the structures are also reused as sports venues for later national games, like the Khalifa International Stadium, which is only part of the massive Doha Sports City constructed for the last Asian Games. The sports city, which is bordered by electric blue neon light posts, houses the Aspire Academy, Hamad Aquatic Centre, and the Aspire Tower.

While not every venue can go down in history as monumental, too many of these structures are turned into government offices, rusted echoplexes, upscale hotels, and shopping arenas. The wasteful spending has already been done; the essence of the venues should be preserved. By “essence,” I don’t mean the blinding lights or intricately geometric layouts; rather, I’m referring to the spirit of the games for which these structures were built. This is not a matter of defending public architecture. It is about making the billions of dollars spent on those prestigious events worth it and memorable for the entire populace — not just those who can afford that kind of luxury.
Games venues are investments. Host governments spend a large amount of labor and capital in order to gloss the country’s political reputation and boast of its economic ability to host such games. But as a former Asian Games volunteer, I know that a lot of team spirit, energy, and time is also invested by the average citizen, who deserves to be a part of the games’ legacy even once they are over. The $400 million Beijing National Stadium, more commonly referred to as the “Bird’s Nest” due to its cupping, nest-like shape, will be the official venue for the Guoan Football Club and will expand into a leisure land for concerts. And perhaps 10 years down the line, this extraordinary structure that was home to the most prestigious sports event of the era will still mint money for live performances, but of a different kind.

The 15th Asian Games venues in Doha, Qatar share a similar fate. Qatar, a small peninsula best known for its obscurity, shot to fame by hosting the games in 2006. Even for countries like Qatar with money to burn, the Doha Asian Games venues are prominent investment opportunities, but they have had all of the essence of the games sucked out of them. Originally a mass sport facility for students over 11, the Aspire Academy was heavily renovated for the games. The dome-shaped academy is equipped with several state-of-the-art gymnasiums and qualified instructors. The first two months of classes after renovation were offered free of charge to Qatari nationals.

Such utilization of existing venues makes sense, but brand-new venues that were created for the sole purpose of the Asian Games deserve to harbor more relevance to the historic games. The Aspire Tower, presently the tallest edifice in Qatar at a little over 300 meters, is one such example. It beat the record for the highest-lit flame during the opening ceremony, but as of July, it was in the process of being transformed into a random multi-purpose complex that will house a five-star hotel, laced with top-of-the-line stores, a corporate center, a ballroom, restaurants, and bars, all of which will portray no thematic elements of the Asian Games, such as the countries that participated or the diversity of games held. Even filling up half of the colossal structure with theme-based halls or restaurants from countries that participated in the games would be a more relevant and interesting approach to handling the venue.

It wasn’t too long after Qatar patted itself on the back, that the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games committee announced the architectural plan for its very own “Water Cube,” as opposed to the Water Cube aquatic center constructed in Beijing for the Olympics. The blue and white structure will be composed of intertwined wedges, which represent Guangzhou’s historical Baiyun Mountains and the Pearl River, the third longest river in China. Just by glancing at the finalized outlook of the upcoming Water Cube and Nansha Stadium, the Doha Sports City shrinks to a clubhouse. And like this, the temporary majestic ambiance is passed on from one grossly financed venue to another, without retaining the true essence of the honor to host such an acclaimed event.