Joe Eaton is a former reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington City Paper, and the Roanoke Times. He now teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
The venues of the Pyeongchang Games, held in a remote and impoverished corner of South Korea, are not built to last. That’s probably for the best.
When athletes gather in the Olympic stadium in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday for the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics, they will experience a quarter of the lifespan of the $60 million stadium.
The 35,000-seat pentagonal Olympic Stadium is an extreme example of pop-up architecture, a mega-event venue with a planned lifespan shorter than the career of an aerial snowboarder. The stadium will be used four times in all—for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games and Paralympics. Then it’s slated to be torn down.
With its simple structure and open roof, the temporary structure was designed with demolition in mind—a technique that has been employed before in previous Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992. Given the sub-freezing temperatures expected, the unheated and roofless facility is perhaps less than ideal.
But the alternative—a more costly permanent structure—is probably an even worse idea, experts say. Pyeongchang is a rural outpost of around 45,000 people in one of the poorest areas of South Korea, a country where winter sports have a small following. If the stadium isn’t torn down, it would likely be fated to join a mighty herd of white elephants from Olympics past—infrastructure that has gone unused decades after the athletes went home, yet continue to drain public money in upkeep costs.
In all, the Pyeongchang Olympics are set to cost as much as $13 billion, far beyond the $8 billion South Korea projected when the city won its hosting bid (in its third try) in 2011. That sounds like a lot, but put it in perspective: Russia’s Sochi Olympics in 2014 cost $51 billion, Bloomberg Businessweek estimated, a feat of excess and state-sanctioned fraud unlikely to be easily duplicated. (The high-speed train line constructed for the event cost nearly $9 billion and proved to be all-but-useless after the event ended.) By some historical standards, the 2018 Winter Games could be a model of Olympian thrift.
Still, the swift demise of the $60 million stadium, and the wider fears that the Olympics will not succeed in fulfilling the South Korean government’s hopes of turning this remote city into an international tourism destination, has many both inside and outside of South Korea questioning if the games will be worth the cost.
“It’s wasteful, there’s no question about it,” Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College and frequent critic of Olympic Games excess, says of the stadium demolition. “It’s very hard to bring myself to say, ‘Knock it down.’ But since the alternative seems to be it wouldn’t be used, and it would cost $10 million to maintain as a white elephant, then, yeah, it’s probably better to knock it down.”
The stadium serves as the latest solution to an all-too-familiar conundrum facing cities that bid to host the Olympics: They are required to launch, and finance, big-ticket development in order to win the bid, yet in many cases the infrastructure constructed to host the events has little purpose after the games. Building venues cannot create a demand that did not exist before. “The only way you can justify it as an economic investment is if there were long-term benefits—if there was a need for infrastructure, if it is a catalyst to bring in foreign trade,” Zimbalist says. “If all of that were true, maybe it makes sense. But none of it is true here.”
Olympic hosts create so-called legacy plans for Olympic structures detailing how they will be used after the games, but those plans often fall though, often spectacularly. Montreal, which took 30 years to pay off the debt of hosting the 1976 Summer Olympics, remains the poster child for how the event can nearly break a city. Construction of its spectacular-but-snakebit Stade Olympique was mired in epic debt, corruption and construction delays; it’s currently being used as a refugee welcome center of asylum seekers.
More recently, host cities have embraced the concept of “temporary architecture,” as CityLab’s Linda Poon reported in 2016—they’re building sites that can be more easily dismantled or repurposed. But in Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the 2016 Summer Games, ambitious plans to turn stadiums into schools were later shelved. Most venues from the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens became instant ruins. Indeed, no CityLab Olympics coverage seems to be complete without a stop to survey the photogenic decay that has gripped the previous Games’ venues.
Can Pyeongchang beat the curse? The city’s legacy plans do show some positive signs. The Olympic Village will be turned into condos, all of which have sold, and an express train line should improve tourist access to the region from Seoul. But critics worry that legacy costs, and environmental impact, will hound the country long after the tourists leave.
The Olympic Stadium is one of many venues likely to be temporary, intentionally or not. A plan to bring a hockey league to the Gangneung Hockey Center fell through, and a proposal to turn the Olympic speed skating venue into a refrigerated seafood warehouse never gained traction. The downhill ski course in Jeongseon is slated for demolition. That development, which removed tens of thousands of trees in a virgin forest, was derided by South Korean environmentalists.
Sung-Bae Roger Park, an associate professor of sports business at Hanyang University in Seoul, says that some Koreans are already sensing an Olympic hangover coming on. The mood is subdued, Park says—a far cry from the excitement that surrounded the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, which served as the newly democratic country’s coming out party and was touted by the government at the time as a financial windfall, or the FIFA World Cup, which the country co-hosted with Japan in 2002. Park has low expectations that Pyeongchang will be money maker.
“Small groups of people will get the benefits—the construction companies, the entertainers, and those who enjoy winter sports—and the rest of the taxpayers are going to be financially responsible,” Park says. “I don’t see any revenue left over from Pyeongchang. It’s not going to be cheap.”
Zimbalist observes that the rising cost of hosting the Olympics is creating something of a crisis for the International Olympic Committee, as many cities have grown disenchanted with the economic toll that the Games can exact. Paris and Los Angeles won bids to host the Olympic Games in 2024 and 2028, in part because both cities have existing stadiums and other facilities, so the development will not begin from scratch.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of critics, Zimbalist among them, continues to insist on choosing two permanent sites to hold the Olympics. “It makes no sense to build a summer Shangri-la and a winter Shangri-la every four years,” he says. “It’s moving that way, very slowly. It’s going to require more and more cities saying ‘we don’t want anything to do with it.’”