Sports stadia and the need for meaning


The recent contretemps over what should happen to this (see picture) after the London 2012 Olympic Games have finished confirmed my worst suspicions regarding modern sporting arenas.

Olympic Stadium, London - tompagenet on Flickr

Olympic Stadium, London - tompagenet on Flickr

Two football clubs were the bidders. West Ham were prepared to keep the athletics track, whereas Tottenham planned to completely rebuild the site as a football stadium and redevelop the Crystal Palace athletics facility. West Ham won.

We spend c£550m on a new stadium and then debate whether we should knock it down afterwards and rebuild it. I mean …

Every Olympics and every World Cup brings more stadia that look much the same. They’re a bit like cars: 15 years ago they had boxy corners, whilst now it’s soft edges, swoops and curves. Identikit capital expenditure.

It might be sacriligeous to say but I can’t even get that excited by the Beijing National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest. But I do remember what happened there.


.curt. on Flickr


friskytuna on Flickr

A real stadium has soul. Its greatness comes not from its physical form, but from the store of memories we can draw upon. And inevitably the memories are to do with people. A stadium becomes great when it is remembered not as a place of concrete, steel or timber but as a place where remarkable things happened.

1. Old school class


Olympia, Greece

AltText on Flickr

Olympia was the site of the classical Olympic Games.

The first stadium was constructed around 560 BC, it consisted of just a simple track. The stadium was remodelled around 500 BC with sloping sides for spectators and shifted slightly to the east.

It had a capacity of 20,000 people. And it was reused at the 2004 Olympics for the shot putt competitions.

There’s a great photo here of a very large Ukrainian gentleman celebrating winning the gold medal.

He’s standing in the middle of what looks like a large sand pit and he looks pretty happy. And in the background, sitting beneath a flimsy barrier on the grassy banks, shaded by trees are the spectators.

The stadium is the backdrop that elevates the shot putt competition from being the shuffling source of explosive grunting that goes on whilst yet another 5000m heat takes place on the track to being the centre of attention.

Other facilities built especially for the Athens Olympics have not fared so well.

2. Old Wembley v New Wembley


nicksarebi on Flickr


Martin Pettitt on Flickr

Built in 1923 for £750,000, the original Wembley Stadium was the centrepiece of the 1948 Olympics, and over the years hosted everything from greyhound racing to Live Aid with quite a lot of football in between.

It had the distinctive Twin Towers and a mere 361 toilets.

Wembley was demolished in 2003 and four years was reborn at a cost of £750m. The new Wembley has the Wembley Arch (the longest single span roof structure in the world) and 2618 toilets (more than any other venue in the world).

One of these two stadia is the greater; the other has better toilets.

Now, you could argue this is hardly New Wembley’s fault. It’s only been in operation for a few years. It took Old Wembley 80 years to accrue gems like the White Horse Final (1923), the Matthews Final (1953) and the 1966 World Cup final, and there was a fair amount of dross scattered before and after.

But pause and look at the eye-watering price. £750m. It’s that cost that has made the Football Association, keen to pay off its debt, stage FA cup semi-finals not at neutral venues but at the home of the final.

Great sporting occasions are not produced in semi-finals. That’s no reflection on the quality of the action, but of their importance as events. The underlying subtext of any semi-final is that’s not the final.

And the final itself is itself diluted as two of the teams, and more importantly the supporters, troop back again to play another match. It’s not about sporting pilgrimage but just a return visit to another stadium whose over-sized roof means that the turf cuts up too easily and demeans the spectacle.

3. Final thoughts

The Melbourne Cricket Ground is a lesson to Wembley in how to do it properly.

It has no outstanding architectural features – no retracting roof, towering arch, landscaped grounds or stunning night-time illuminations – and I can’t find any information on the number of toilets it has.

But it was built in 1853 and is still there. Of course, it’s been expanded, renovated and refurbished countless times. But its never lost its essence and is now listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and the Australian National Heritage List.

Over the years safety considerations have lowered the capacity, but they’ve still kept it up above the magic threshold. I can’t imagine they arrived at a figure of 100,018 by chance. It’s simply an acknowledgement that heritage comes before spacious corporate boxes.


They crammed in over 200,000 people into the Maracana (Rio de Janeiro) to watch the 1950 World Cup Final when the stadium wasn’t finished and had no toilets.

By all means refurbish and redevelop. But do it in a spirit that maintains the stadium’s integrity, rather than bulldozing it and starting again.

The Maracana will be a central and symbolic part of the World Cup (2014) and Olympics (2016).

But it’ll still be the same beautiful bowl rich in sporting significance.

3 Responses to “Sports stadia and the need for meaning”

  1. off site building guy Says:

    “A stadium becomes great when it is remembered not as a place of concrete, steel or timber but as a place where remarkable things happened.” I sort of agree with you, however I’d rather watch a great event at the new Wembley than the same at the old, very tired, very uncomfortable one.

  2. Benedikte Ranum Says:

    I can see your point, off site building guy! Thanks for commenting. If you can combine a magnificent event with a few creature comforts, great architecture and plentiful toilet facilities… so much the better! 🙂

    I like your website, by the way. Always interested in modular/off-site building technologies.

  3. esieditor Says:

    At a slight tangent, but Dave Jones, the former manager of Cardiff City FC, was interviewed on the radio last night about the impact of the club’s new stadium which was finished a couple of years ago.

    He acknowledged that it looked great, but admitted that that was the least of his concerns.

    The away team’s changing room was far too spacious. So, he had it partitioned in half. And the referee’s changing room was in a neutral position. So he locked the door, and gave the officials a room opposite the home team’s dressing room. If things aren’t going your way it is much easier, apparently, to have a quick word with the ref if he’s right next to you.

    Dave Jones concluded that the architects designed it and made it ‘look pretty’, but he had to change it to be what he needed.

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