Super-Size It: The Evolution of Olympic Facilities

February 21, 2014

The Olympics originated around 800 B.C. and since then, a lot has changed. What was once a male-only, running-focused event has become a globally scaled, season-spanning and world-uniting spectacle of diverse athletics.  As the games have grown and evolved, so have the requirements of the Olympic facilities.  Many of the challenges faced by Olympic host committees are the challenges that have also faced facilities managers. How can the venues reflect the Olympic mission while also displaying advances in architecture, technology and the host nations’ cultural influences? As the world watched Sochi rush to completion, the pride of Russia on the line, we remember that the venue itself is competing for gold.

Image: Hippodrome, Aphrodisias, Turkey

Hippodrome - Ancient Olympic Facilities

Humble Beginnings

The Olympics originated in Greece and were held every four years between 800 B.C. and the 4th century A.D. The Olympics originally featured a lone foot race but over time, more events were added and spread beyond running.  As the games grew in size, so did the facilities needed to accommodate the events and athletes. While the ceremonies were held at religious shrines, “…a vast complex of buildings and structures was constructed at Olympia to accommodate the growing number of sports and athletes. Chariot races, first run in 680 B.C. , were held in the hippodrome. Boxers and wrestlers trained in the Palaestra, which was adjacent to the gymnasium. The Leonidaion housed the athletes.”  [Source: Origin of the Olympic Games,]

The rise of Christianity in the 4th century would put a 1500-year hold on the ‘pagan festival’ until the tradition was resurrected by Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France in 1892. Per the History Channel’s coverage of Olympic history, “The first modern Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. In the opening ceremony, King Georgios I and a crowd of 60,000 spectators welcomed 280 participants from 13 nations (all male), who would compete in 43 events, including track and field, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, cycling, tennis, weightlifting, shooting and fencing.”

A Century of Changes

Image: Olympic Village, Los Angeles, 1932

Olympic Facilities - Olympic Village, Los Angeles

As the Olympics moved into the 20th century, many of the struggles and changes that the world would undergo manifested in the Olympic Games. While world wars, political turmoil, and terrorism would all impact the Games, many advances in technology would equally transform the meaning of hosting them.

Looking through the lens of a facility manager, consider how these 20th century developments affected the creation and maintenance of the Olympic facilities.

  • Electricity – As electricity became an expectation, connecting to a source, wiring buildings, avoiding fires and shorts, and paying for usage were all added to the list of considerations when developing or modifying a building for Olympic usage.
  • Sports & Sporting Venues – The number of sports featured in both the summer and winter Games has increased and both the equipment and venues have evolved with the times.  If you check out Mashable’s Evolution of the Winter Olympics, you’ll notice that in the older images, many of the winter events were hosted outside and structures were made of actual snow or ice mounds. Today, many of the events require arenas or man-made structures, like the luge track or the snowboard half pipe. The spectatorship of the Games has also increased, necessitating arenas and stadiums that provide vantage points and places to host opening and closing ceremonies.
  • Olympic Village – The 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles featured the first official Olympic Village to house athletes and staff. The addition of the village became par for the course as each successive Olympic host vied to outdo its predecessor. This opened up an entirely different type of facility to be developed alongside the sporting arenas.
  • Communications
    • Telegraph, telephone, and internet have heavily influenced and revolutionized the way the world stays in touch. As these technologies became commonplace, access to them became a requirement of the Olympic facilities. More recently, security surrounding these technologies is also a concern, as highlighted in the coverage of Sochi’s WiFi security issues.
    • Television & Broadcasting – The Olympics were first televised in 1936 in Berlin and the first live broadcast of the Winter Games was in 1956 from Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Since then, television has brought the world together around the games and also given exponentially higher visibility to the aesthetics of the games, including uniforms, landscapes, architecture, and the artistry of the opening and closing ceremonies.  Olympic facilities must now be “camera-ready” and also allow for the broadcasters to do their work in the sporting arenas. There are camera tracks, broadcast booths, rigging, and satellite dishes all in the name of supporting the televised Olympics. For the Sochi Olympics, the 75,000 square foot International Broadcasting Centre was built solely to house the world’s media that would broadcast to over 3 billion viewers.

Managing Olympic Venues Today

Image: Solar City Tower, Rio

Olympic Facilities - Solar City Tower RioWhile Sochi spent a reported $50 billion to host the 2014 Games, the International Olympic Committee, future host cities, and the global audience are looking for more than glitz and expense. Like the requirements of any new building, demands on future facilities will include sustainability, security and automation. Buildings will need to be smarter, made of sustainable goods and energy efficient. The self-sustaining Solar City Tower for 2016 Olympics in Rio is designed to create renewable energy for use in the Olympic Village as well as the city of Rio. The facilities must meet counter-terrorism standards and communication technologies must also feature data security. Whether you’re developing a new study hall on campus or an arena to represent your country to the world, these are the challenges faced by all facilities managers in the changing global and technological environment.


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