After the Games

What becomes of Olympic pools when the athletes and spectators go home?

By Joe Hunsaker | May/June 1998.
Aquatics International

In 1904, Olympic swimming competition took a bold step into the future. Whereas swimmers in the Greek-hosted events in 1896 and those in France in 1900 competed in coastal sea waters, athletes in St. Louis plunged, for the first time, into waters held within a man-made facility. Granted it was part of a network of boating lagoons created for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, but still, a standard was established and progress became irreversible.

Since those early days, swimming competition venues for the Games have undergone a substantial evolution. The playing fields have evolved into tightly regulated, extremely technical and sophisticated facilities.

And because the Olympics focus world-wide visibility on the host sites, cities often choose to elaborate upon the technical requirements, creating showcases to represent themselves.

No matter how successfully these venues performed their functions during the Olympic Games, though, a world tour of the once-glorious aquatic venues reveals the difficulty of retaining the glitter following the Games.

Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, Melbourne, Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City, Munich. In their days, many of these Olympic cities created veritable palaces to host aquatic events for the Games.

Sadly, in most cases, the once state-of-the-art facilities now are in various states of disrepair – some completely boarded up and abandoned, other exacting significant financial costs from their communities.

It’s not just the glitz and glitter that creates the problem. Today, because of ever more demanding international regulations, even the most utilitarian of facilities can be costly. Seating requirements, media accommodations and technical support for Olympic events result in facilities that are, by necessity, very large.

This is particularly true of aquatic venues. They typically seat 15,000 to 16,000 people and require tremendous office spaces, wide decks for line of sight, a tall ceiling to accommodate the 10-meter tower; and, unlike track and field structures, aquatic centers cannot easily be converted to another use after the world goes home.

At its heart, an aquatic center is a collection of tanks with water in them, and this most likely is what it will remain.

What happens, then, to Olympic swimming facilities after the flame of the Olympic caldron goes out? Are these facilities destined to rain the local economy, falling into disuse and disrepair? Or is it possible for them to function as viable community assets?

Because of the different issues and challenges that come to bear on Olympic preparations throughout the world, there are no all-encompassing answers.

A look at some recent Olympic aquatic venues reveals how owners have avoided financial quagmires. In some cases, researching capital and long-term operating costs has helped planning for the legacy period.

Olympic Gold

Although there are many complex issues that shape the finished design of an Olympic aquatic facility, the two that most directly affect long-term viability in the community are capital costs and operating costs.

Capital costs are ones that will go into building the actual structure. They will be determined by the specific requirements for Olympic competition; pool depth and surface dimensions, lighting requirements, temperature control, seating requirements, services for media coverage, etc.

Additionally, there are capital construction costs for facility specifications that have nothing to do with competition requirements, but are designed with the legacy period in mind. These might include movable bulkheads and pool floors, and other pool and building features designed to enhance long-term programming flexibility.

Operating costs are the ongoing expenses of utilities, staffing costs, maintenance and repairs that re necessary to keep the facility in good condition and the programming fully staffed.

Conducting a design program to determine the best facility design for short-term Olympic requirements and long-term community use takes time, and unfortunately, time is usually at a premium when bringing an Olympic facility on line.

Between the time the Olympic site is awarded and announced, and the time the facility has to be operational for the Games, there is little time remaining to study a broad range of potential sites, designs and other issues.

Let the Games ….Continue

In the United States, most Olympic swimmers rise through a strong network of club, then intercollegiate, competition. Because there is this long-standing tradition and highly developed organization for competitive swimming at the university level, many large schools find it desirable to support a world-class facility on their campus. They do so with little concern for ongoing operational costs, since the money comes out of the universities general budget and benefits are available to the whole student body.

Consequently, the most logical and practical sites for aquatic facilities at the two U.S.-hosted Olympic Summer games since 1904 have been at universities.

Despite having the luxury of maintaining the aquatic facility as a competitive arena after the Olympic Games, the owner in each case planned their aquatic facility with a cautious eye on construction and operating costs.

In Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Games, the University of Southern California was the site of the aquatic competition venue.

Following on the heels of the expensive lessons learned at the previous Olympics in Montreal, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee chose a bare-bones approach to all its site developments, using existing facilities wherever possible and upgrading them only as necessary to meet Olympic standards.

The resulting aquatic center at USC was completely outdoors, and the required swimming and diving tanks were surrounded entirely by temporary seating and office spaces. As a result, not only were construction costs held to a minimum, but ongoing operation costs also have been kept in check.

After the completion of the Games, all temporary structures were removed, leaving USC with a competitive aquatic center that met all requirements for intercollegiate competition, yet was completely manageable for the down-sized needs of post-Games usage.

The facilities in place to host the 1996 Olympic Games at Georgia Tech also were planned with a frugal eye toward the legacy period, yet a significantly different approach was taken to ensure long-term operational viability. Although temporary facilities will play an important role (nearly two-thirds of the seating available for Olympic competitions will be temporary), there was nothing skimpy about the design.

A movable floor and bulkheads in the pool will allow for programming versatility following the Games; and the open-air roof design reduced construction and operational costs. It should be able to attract national and international aquatic competitions; yet, it also should be flexible enough to accommodate instructional and recreational programming.

The ultimate community pool

The key to both U.S. facilities’ long-range viability remains the support of their competitive programming through the university ownership.

In most other countries around the world, that luxury is not available. There are no highly organized competitive swimming programs at the collegiate level in Europe and Asia, as there is in the United States. There is no 50-meter pool at the Sorbonne, no 10-meter diving facility at Berlin University.

Consequently, in recent host cities like Munich, Montreal, Seoul and Barcelona, Olympic aquatic centers invariably became public recreation facilities after the Games were over. Their success at achieving long-term viability has varied, and the variable has inevitably been how successfully construction costs were controlled, and how well the facility was designed to operate in a fiscally responsible capacity in the legacy period.

Sometimes the challenges weren’t met successfully. Munich is home to one example. The entire Olympic complex for the ’72 Games was conceived to continue as a new town in the post-Games period. As part of that plan, the Munich aquatic facility was a very beautiful complex, but also a ver high maintenance facility.

Unfortunately, although the town did slowly develop as conceived, no strong economic tax base was ever established because no industry ever developed. As a result, the community cash flow fell short, and the swimming pool complex–as well as, undoubtedly, other facilities from the Games—struggled to maintain its physical condition.

Montreal’s experience in Olympic history has been well documented, its fervor leading the city into cash flow problems.

The aquatic venue was caught up in the same exuberance, with seemingly little concern for the legacy period. The spaces were designed solely for the requirements of their 10 days of use during the Games. Today, the primary source of revenue for the natatorium comes from guided tours.

Seoul seemed to be following the same slippery slope as Montreal for the ’88 Games, building elaborate indoor facilities with substantial ongoing operational costs. But increased tourism and increased interest in sports caused by hosting Olympic Games has created a continuing demand for use of the facilities well into the legacy period.

The Seoul Olympic Sports Promotion Foundation assumed ownership of the aquatic facility, as well as five other sports facilities constructed for the Games, operating them on revenue funds and surplus money generated from the Olympics.

More than 1 million people use the facilities each year, the foundation reports, helping support operating costs and endowing a fund to promote youth sports and support Korean Olympic teams.

Using an approach modeled upon that of Los Angeles, Barcelona’s organizers took advantage of many existing facilities, modifying them to bring them up to Olympic standards.

The aquatic venue was an existing outdoor complex in a “dotted i” arrangement, a 50 meter x 21 meter competition swimming tank alongside a 21 meter diving tank. Federation Internationale de Nation Amateur (FINA) requirements demanded the competition swimming pool be widened to 25 meters. Another 50 meter indoor warm-up tank was added, and the existing diving tank was drained and covered with temporary seating.

The resulting U-shaped seating arrangement surrounded the pool like a tight-fitting pocket, and at first glimpse looked crowded. But the athletes’ response was overwhelmingly favorable – they liked the closeness of the cheering spectators.

The new diving venue was built on the other side of a mountain, more than a mile away from the swimming venue. The resulting backdrop for television coverage created one of the most lasting images of the ’92 Olympics, that of divers gracefully spinning and flipping in front of the historic Barcelona skyline.

Following the Games, all temporary seating was removed, the original diving pool was restored, and today, the Barcelona parks and recreation department runs the very manageable facility as a youth aquatic training and recreation center.

The Olympic Games represent a rare opportunity for host cities to show their best faces to a world-side audience. But past experience has shown the folly of rushing into a development frenzy with no thought given to exorbitant construction costs and long-term operating costs that far exceed any realistic revenue expectations.

The worldwide attention that focuses every four years on the chosen Olympic Host City should be a beginning, not an end. The enthusiasm, pride and physical development should live on as positive legacies of the Olympic experience long after the athletes, the television cameras and the ticket holders have gone.

If facilities can be designed so they can be used in the post-Games period with minimal operating costs in an ordinary ratio to the amenities provided, then the legacy period can provide substantial benefits to community long after the Olympic flames have been extinguished.

BY: D. Joseph Hunsaker, Counsilman Hunsaker, St. Louis, designers and engineers for the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.