Years, sometimes decades, of planning and preparation go into the staging of the Olympic Games. From the first modern Olympics event hosted by Athens, Greece in 1896 at the Panathenaic Stadium, which signalled the revival of the ancient sporting competition, the Games have – since then - just got bigger, better, and larger than life.
And nothing screams larger than life more than an Olympic Games stadium – the centrepiece of the global sporting event where, between the opening and closing ceremonies, thousands of sportspersons compete to break world records, birth new icons, and rewrite history. Over the years, numerous host cities have gone above and beyond their brief, budget and capacity to build stadiums to shock and awe the rest of the world with their grandeur.
With Paris 2024 just a few months away, let’s take a look at the stories behind some of these impressive venues that have made Olympic history not just for their size or value but also for the inspiring engineering and architectural design features that make for great conversations.
Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece
Image source: Casambi | Photographer: Dionisis Koutsis
Originally built around 330 BC for the Panathenian Games in ancient Greece by Athenian orator and politician Lycurgus, the Panathenaic Stadium was the venue for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. This white marble stadium (the only one of its kind in the world) was lost to the world until its discovery in the 1830s. The stadium was rebuilt just in time for the 1896 Games with architect Anastasis Metaxas leading the design project. At its unveiling, IOC founding member Baron Pierre de Coubertin rightly described it as “a living stadium that has not been seen for centuries”.
A world heritage site, the stadium is known locally as ‘Kallimarmaro’ in reference to its marble construction. While the 2004 Games in Athens was hosted at a modern Olympics stadium, some of the events were held at the Panathenaic Stadium. Today, visitors to the stadium can jog on the same track used by competitors at the 1896 Games.
Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Canada
Image source: https://www.mtl.org/
Often described as an architectural masterpiece as well as an engineering marvel, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was specifically built for the 1976 Summer Games. Designed by French architect, Roger Taillibert who was heavily influenced by organic architecture, the stadium’s construction began in 1973 right after the city won the bid to host the Games. However, between labour problems and cost overruns, the stadium was still unfinished when the Games opened. Construction work was finally completed only in 1987, with the total cost exceeding $1.5 billion.
A particularly distinguishing design element of the stadium is its 165-metre tall leaning tower – the Montreal Tower, which is the tallest inclined structure in the world, standing at a 45° angle. Completed only in 1987, the tower houses an observatory with a glass-encased funicular taking visitors to the top to enjoy the 360° stunning views.
Popularly known as the ‘The Big O’ in reference to its ring-shaped roof, the stadium is also jocularly called ‘The Big Owe’, with the city able to pay off the debt of hosting the Games only in 2006.
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, USA
Image source: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
The only stadium in the world to have hosted two Summer Olympic Games – 1932 and 1984 – the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is also the venue for the 2028 Games and well on its way to create a new record. Designed by the father-son architect team of John and Donald Parkinson in 1923, taking inspiration from a Roman colosseum, the stadium is a living memorial to members of the US Armed Forces who served during World War I.
A signature architectural feature of the Coliseum is the iconic Peristyle – a column and archway structure consisting of a large central arch, six flanking arches on each side, and 24 columns. Located within the Peristyle arches is the Memorial Court of Honor, comprising of 64 commemorative plaques honouring “outstanding persons or events that have had a definite impact upon the history, glory and growth of the Coliseum”.
Originally built to accommodate 100,000 spectators, the stadium, also a National and California Historic Landmark, is a civic treasure for the local community.
Beijing National Stadium, Beijing, China
Image source: https://www.herzogdemeuron.com/
Built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the famous Bird’s Nest stadium is truly one of the most beautiful stadiums in the world with its bold, earthquake-resistant design by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron built on a brief to “develop an architecture that will continue to be functional following the Games”.
According to the architects who described the stadium as a “chaotic thicket of supports, beams and stairs”, the overall form is developed as an almost round bowl with an ascending and descending rim, while the extensive roof support system is designed as a mesh of columns and vertical and diagonal braces. The construction used 42,000 tons of steel, and each of the 24 trussed columns supporting the structure weighed 1,000 tons.
Designed to seat 91,000 spectators for the Games, the stadium was also the venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Interestingly, the nickname ‘Bird‘s Nest’ was coined by the Chinese themselves even before the design had left the drawing board.
Accor Stadium, Sydney, Australia
Image source: Populous/Getty
Purpose-built as the centrepiece of the Sydney Olympic Park for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Stadium Australia (as it was known then) is one of the most impressive sporting venues in Olympic history. Designed by Populous, the brief sought a venue that could accommodate 118,000 people during the Olympics but could be reduced afterwards to 85,000 seats. The design also needed a “distinctively Australian building” that complemented two iconic structures in Sydney – the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. In response to the IOC’s mandate for a ‘Green Games’ in Sydney, numerous environmentally sustainable measures were incorporated in the design including rainwater harvesting and passive design features.
Since the 2000 Games, the stadium has gone through several iterations, not only in name but also in design. Known now as Accor Stadium, the venue has evolved significantly since its Olympics days with Rugby League, Rugby Union, Football, AFL, American Football and Cricket games being hosted throughout the year.
London Olympic Stadium, London, United Kingdom
Image source: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Situated within the 560-acre Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park at Stratford on a site surrounded by water on three sides, London Olympic Stadium was built to host the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The stadium is located on a diamond-shaped island between two existing waterways, with the design by Populous based on a brief that challenged the concept of building permanence by seeking a building, which could easily be adapted for use after the Games.
The stadium features the longest cantilevered roof in the world while the compact seating bowl design by Populous brings the 80,000 spectators in close proximity to the play area. Features such as a PVC roof and temporary tiered seating were incorporated to allow simple reconfiguration after the event.
The construction of the stadium, which began in 2008, was completed in 2011, much ahead of the 2012 Games and well below the budget thanks to the use of recycled materials and minimal application of steel. In keeping with the initial design brief of future adaptability, London Olympic Stadium has since been refitted and repurposed into a flexible venue that can host global sporting and entertainment events.
Paris 2024, France
Image source: Paris 2024
Paris 2024 promises to be a game-changer in the history of Olympic Games, starting with the Opening Ceremony being held, not in a grand stadium but outdoors in the heart of the city along the Seine River. An Olympic Games like no other, according to the organisers, the Games will be held at 35 venues in Paris, Ile-de-France, mainland France, and even in Tahiti, French Polynesia.
In what could be called adaptive reuse, the Paris Olympic Games will see the city’s iconic landmarks being temporarily converted into sporting arenas, which along with existing sports stadiums will set the stage for new world records and memorable sporting moments.
For instance, the Champ-de-Mars, the park located at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, will become a temporary outdoor stadium – the Eiffel Tower Stadium – during the Games but will be dismantled and restored to its original use as a space for meetings and gatherings.
As the country’s largest stadium, Stade de France, located in Saint-Denis, will be the Olympic Stadium for the Paris 2024 Games. Designed by architects Macary, Zublena, Regembal and Costantini for the 1998 Football World Cup, the stadium will be the venue for the athletics competitions.
Top image: Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece (Image source: https://www.panathenaicstadium.gr)