Here is a little secret for West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur awaiting the decision on who will get the Olympic Stadium next week. Whisper it quietly, but football fans rarely want to watch football in an Olympic Stadium. Why do I say that? Well a simple look at similar structures around the world, built for non-football events reveals quite a bit. The prospect of an Olympic Games being awarded to a city sends them into construction meltdown, over promising and in most cases under delivering on the legacy of the games. The whole story of whether a stadium will have an athletics track or not is not a new thing. We all know that at the end of the day politics will win the day, and we have seen all sorts of stories in the past few weeks about who will do what when/if they win the bid.
Below we have analysed the stadiums used in the last ten games, and what has happened since. And what does history tell us? Well, lets start back in 1972 shall we?
The Olympiastadion – Munich (1972 Olympic Games)
The games that transformed a nation, both before but also during with the events of Black September. The stadium was built literally with rubble cleared from the city after the post war rebuilding effort. It was a very futuristic structure when it opened in 1971 with its translucent wavy roof and a capacity of 69,00. Both Munich teams moved in to start, regularly playing in front of sell out crowds before TSV got bored and moved away back to their spiritual home nearer the city centre. The stadium retained its running track which meant some fans behind the goals were nearly 40 metres from the action. Both Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 were unhappy playing there – 1860 for many years played at their original Grünwalderstrasse ground. Despite hosting a World Cup, a European Championship and three Champions League Finals both clubs jumped at the opportunity to move to a stadium of the same size when the Allianz Arena was opened prior to the 2006 World Cup. The stadium today is still used for athletics.
The Olympic Stadium – Montreal (1976 Olympic Games)
“The games that no one wanted” are still being repaid by the citizens of Montreal today. Despite Moscow gaining more votes in the first round of selection, Montreal won the second round thanks to some tactical bidding by the eliminated US bid team followers from Los Angeles. The stadium itself wasn’t completed according to the initial plans until 1987, some 11 years after the games had finished at a final cost of £163million (in today’s money around £1.4bn thus making it the second most expensive every built). The 66,000 stadium today has no tenants, and only generates around $15m per annum in rent although a MLS expansion team in 2012 have been pencilled in to play some games here. Apart from the games versus Toronto, it is hard to see the ground ever being more than a quarter full for MLS.
The Olympic Stadium aka The Grand Sports Arena of the Luzhniki Sports Complex – Moscow (1980 Olympic Games)
After losing out on the 1976 games, Moscow made sure they won the bid four years later, although the games will be remembered for the American boycott. There was a stadium already on the bend of the Moskova river, built in 1956 and used for such events as Ice Hockey. It was renovated for the 1980 games with a 103,000 capacity although it has been scaled down significantly today to just , 78,000. However, the stadium is still the biggest stadium in Russia and is used as a home venue for a variety of Russian clubs, including current tenants Spartak Moscow who average less than 30,000. Whilst the stadium has hosted a Champions League Final, it is relatively unloved and underused, with the Russian national team preferring the more intimate Lokomotiv Stadium in the north east of the city. The running track, even worse sightlines and the poor state of the concourses and seating area means that it still seems stuck in the communist era.
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Stadium – Los Angeles (1984 Olympic Games)
The Olympic Games that took sports into the commercial world we know today. After the political games of 1980 it was too good an opportunity for the US to miss to try and put on the “greatest show on earth” although it is safe to say the Russian boycott wasn’t felt in the same way as the US#s one was 4 years previous. The stadium was built back in 1923 and this was the second Olympics it had hosted, the first being in 1932. With more athletics facilities in California than most countries it was no surprise when the athletics track was removed soon after the games. However, it only has one tenant, the University of Southern Californian Trojans football team who play half a dozen games there a season (rumours are that the Los Angeles Temptation Lingerie team are moving in are yet to materialise). It does hold the record of hosting the biggest ever crowd for a baseball game when 115,000 saw the LA Dodgers play the Boston Red Sox.
The Olympic Stadium – Seoul (1988 Olympic Games)
Opened in 1984 well in time for the 1988 Olympics which Seoul won with ease in a vote against Nagoya in Japan. After the games the 100,000 capacity stadium was reduced to 69,000 but remained largely unused until 2007 when Seoul United FC moved in for two years, rarerly getting crowds of over 10,000 in the Korean third tier of football. What is amazing about the Olympic Stadium is that it was completely ignored as a venue for the 2002 World Cup, which saw new stadiums being built in Seoul itself as well as in the outlying towns of Suwong and Incheon. However, the stadium (along with those already mentioned plus a new one in Incheon) was part of South Korea’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Estadi Olímpic de Montjûic – Barcelona (1992 Olympic Games)
“It was the first time that we met…how could we forget?” So sang Freddie Mercury and that fat woman. Many remember the fantastic views of the city from the top of the diving board but the historic stadium used for the main events was originally built in 1927. It was one of the smallest Olympic stadiums used in modern times with a capacity of just 70,000. After laying empty for nearly 5 years post games, the capacity was reduced to 55,000 for RCD Espanyol to play their La Liga games there after their original ground in Sarria was demoloshed. Unfortunately they never really saw the same fervent support move across the city, averaging no more than 22,000 in the twelve years they played there. In most games the end stands sat empty. Andorra used the stadium for their “big games” including two against England, but again vast banks of seats lay empty. It was also used by the Barcelona Dragons in the ill-fated World League of American Football for a few years but again the public interest simply wasn’t there. Since moving to their new stadium RCD Espanyol’s attendances have risen by nearly 6,000 and the Montjüic is once again empty and without a tenant.
The Centennial Olympic Stadium – Atlanta (1996 Olympic Games)
Now this was a sensible idea – building a stadium in a certain way ready for a different use after the games. Before the games commenced a deal had been struck to rebuild the 85,000 athletics stadium into a baseball ground holding 49,000 for the Atlanta Braves and today it is almost unrecognisable as a former venue for track and field. There was never any chance of the ground being used for its original purpose and in this case sense ruled from day one.
Stadium Australia – Sydney (2000 Olympic Games)
One of the most impressive modern Olympic Stadiums is actually used significantly more than most. The original 110,000 capacity stadium has been modified since the end of the games, specifically by putting in moveable seats which has reduced the stadium capacity down to 83,000 BUT it now feels like a proper sports stadium. The ground is used by no less than seven different sporting sides as well as the Australian national Rugby Union and Leagues team. It was the scene of THAT drop goal by Johnnie Wilkinson in 2003 that won the Rugby World Cup for England over the hosts Australia. It is regularly voted one of the most impressive stadiums in the world. Just to re-iterate it used to be used for track and field but now is one of the most impressive in the world. Get the picture yet?
The Olympic Stadium – Athens (2004 Olympic Games)
Originally built in the early 1980’s and used for a few large European football games by the Athens clubs, the renovations for the games saw an impressive new roof added just in time for the games as well as a few more seats to make the capacity just over 71,000. It is located on the fringes of the city, and in an area that today would be called “sleepy”. Since the renovations it has been used by AEK Athens and Panathinaikos, although both are seeing significantly less fans (AEK – 19,000 and Panathinaikos – 15,000) since moving to the white elephant on the edge of town and both would welcome a return to their former homes in the city centre. For most league games only one stand is opened. Amazingly, the ground hosted the 2007 Champions League Final, which was dogged by contraversey of poor security. This season the poor state of the pitch caused the Europa League tie between AEK Athens and Dundee United to be moved to elsewhere in the city…in August!
The Beijing National Stadium – Beijing (2008 Olympic Games)
The Birdsnest stadium is one of the most impressive and unique stadiums built in the past decade anywhere in the world. Originally seating 91,000 it has since been reduced in size to 80,000 but still doesn’t have a tenant to call it home. The stadium did host the a friendly between Birmingham City and Beijing Guoan last summer in front of 30,000 as well as the 2009 Italian Supercoppa (for some bizarre reason) between Inter and Lazio in front of nearly 69,000. Beijing Guoan have turned down the chance to play their regularly and the latest plan is to turn the stadium into a big shopping centre to try and recoup some of the £350million construction cost.
So, apart from Stadium Australia, has there been a successful Olympic Stadium? Not really. And the reason why Stadium Australia is so successful? Because it removed the athletics track and because the de facto main venue in the city! Both Atlanta and Los Angeles removed the running track at the first opportunity and are reaping the benefits to an extent today. Football fans do not want to sit in a stadium where the action is taking place 30 or 40 metres from the action nor one that sits in the middle of nowhere with no facilities in the surrounding areas. The new Olympic stadium with an athletics track will be like re-visiting Wembley Stadium from the 1980’s. It doesn’t matter how much is spent on the comfortable seats, the wide concourses or the transport routes, if the sightlines are crap and if there is nothing around the stadium to “amuse” the fans, people will not come back. The atmosphere will be dreadful. It will also struggle to host some of the key events that have made stadiums like the one in Sydney successful. Major rugby games will always be played at the 82,000 capacity Twickenham, England internationals are contractually obliged to be played at Wembley for the next few millennia so what major sporting events can draw people to the Olympic Stadium?
Look at the current situation at Upton Park. Within a 15 minute walk of the ground there are over 30 pubs, all of which are full on a matchday. What will happen to these if West Ham move? They will eventually die out. And where will fans drink? Based on the prices and facilities at Upton Park as it is, let alone stadiums such as Wembley, The Emirates or Stadium of Light, fans will not bother to get to the ground early.
David Gold was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 live this Autumn saying that as part of the move to the stadium, West Ham would offer “the cheapest tickets in the Premier League“. As a successful business man do you really think he will cut the ticket prices from the £35+ pound which is the lowest seat price at the moment at Upton Park, to less than £20 that you can buy a ticket for at Blackburn Rovers or Wigan Athletic? And would you still pay £20 for what is essentially a restricted view. West Ham’s vice-chairman Karren Brady said: “The last thing anyone wants is for the Olympic Stadium to become a ghost of Olympics past. The only realistic solution is to make the stadium work for a Premier League football team and that should be West Ham United.” Sorry Karren I disagree with this. Unless the capacity is reduced AND the track removed West Ham will suffer. And if match day incomes fall, then the prices will rise. So what chance is there of a stadium without a track?
Baroness Ford insisted the legacy company remains committed to a future for the 80,000-seater stadium that includes more than just football.
“We want this to be a mixed use and sports stadium,” she said, emphasising that there has been “no change” in the pledge that athletics would benefit for the Games. And that is the issue. No-one is prepared to look back in history and see what fate has befallen Munich, Montreal, Moscow, Seoul, Barcelona and Athens. History can tell us a lot about the future.
I will leave the last word to the sample of West Ham fans who were surveyed back in the late Summer of 2010 by the excellent website Westhamprocess.com. Only 33% of fans want to move to the Olympic Stadium, with 47% preferring to stay at Upton Park and develop the one stand that actually needs modernising. And as a reflection on the footballing word we live in today, only 18% felt it was the right move for the fans. The public has spoken, but is anyone actually listening?
To read the full survey report click here.