The gleaming marble horseshoe that Athens built when the Olympics were revived in 1896 still is in use. So are the stadia that Paris employed when it hosted the Games in 1900 and 1924. Melbourne, which is likely to bid for 2028, is considering renovating its storied Cricket Ground from 1956.
Historically the main stadia that are the centerpieces of the Summer Games are preserved and updated for decades as national legacies. Except for White City Stadium, the 1908 London site that was demolished in 1985, none has been torn down except to be replaced by a larger venue with modern amenities.
But were Boston to be awarded the 2024 edition, the temporary 69,000-seat facility proposed for Widett Circle in South Boston would be used for less than a baseball season before being dismantled like a triple-decked Erector Set and moved elsewhere.
The demountable stadium is a novel option under the IOC’s Agenda 2020, which has given host cities unprecedented flexibility in venue choices. The International Olympic Committee, which will choose the 2024 host in September 2017, now considers maximum use of existing facilities or temporary venues as positive aspects of a bid.
“I think the new approach would be to say, well, if this works for you and we have a stadium for the Games, fine,” said IOC member Dick Pound, a Montreal attorney whose city needed three decades to pay for the stadium that it built for 1976.
Paris and Rome, two of Boston’s bid rivals, already have stadia. Hamburg, which built a soccer facility at the turn of the millennium, plans to create a separate stadium for the Games on an island in the Elbe River.
With the Patriots playing in a 69,000-seat facility in Foxborough that they built in 2002, there’s no need for another stadium of that size in Boston. “The thing that we want to avoid more than anything else is building an expensive permanent stadium that’s unused after the Games,” said USOC chief executive officer Scott Blackmun.
All of the stadia from the four previous Summer Games held in the US still are in use. Francis Field, built for the 1904 event in St. Louis, is home to Washington University’s football team. The Los Angeles Coliseum, the site in 1932 and 1984, is Southern Cal’s football venue and again would have been the main stadium had the city been picked as the American candidate for 2024. And Atlanta, which constructed the Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Games, turned it into the home of the Braves, who still play there.
But stadia built for recent and upcoming Olympics have been burdened with huge cost overruns and either infrequent post-Games usage or expensive transformations for subsequent tenants. Beijing’s oversized Bird’s Nest, which will stage next month’s world outdoor track and field championships, generally is idle and has evolved into a tourist attraction.
The London stadium, which was priced at $440 million in the original bid, now is projected to cost more than $1 billion with the changeover to a soccer stadium for West Ham United. And Tokyo’s new venue for 2020, budgeted for $1 billion and still to be built, now is priced at double that even with the installation of the retractable roof delayed until after the Games.
Boston’s temporary stadium would cost only $176 million and would be paid for by the Games organizing committee, which has pledged not to use taxpayer dollars for venues. “You’re not buying the stadium, you’re basically leasing the stadium,” said architect David Manfredi, who has been working closely with the bid partnership on potential venues. “If you look at the numbers of comparable facilities, albeit smaller, it makes our budget look very conservative.”
If the budget is a fraction of what host cities normally spend on a main stadium it’s because Boston 2024 will require that a master developer pay for everything else — buying the 83-acre site from a number of public and private landholders and paying their relocation costs and building an enormous platform and related infrastructure that would support the stadium.
In return for an estimated $1.2 billion investment, the yet-unnamed developer would have the right to build a new neighborhood (tentatively called Midtown) that would link the South End and South Boston. The expanse, a mixed-use blend of housing, retail, and open space, would encompass 18 city blocks and 8 million square feet and would come with generous tax breaks from the city that would be pegged at 85 percent for the first decade.
“The 2020 Agenda wants to see Olympics that leave cities better off from whence they came,” said Boston 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca, “and this will leave Boston a lot better off and be very transformational for us.”
The reliance on a private investor not only to do the heaviest lifting for an Olympic stadium but also to be required to guarantee costs and completion is unprecedented and not without substantial and potentially expensive uncertainties. In its revised Bid 2.0 plan unveiled last week, the 2024 partnership acknowledged that the risks included “potential land owner holdouts, resulting in well-above-market asking prices, delays in selling and refusing to sell” as well as “problems with relocation sites, including identification, cost and timing.”
“If in fact this is a winning situation for Boston — meaning they’re going to generate more tax revenues and be able to have a stadium that is a centerpiece of the Olympics — that’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” said Blackmun.
That centerpiece, for the first time in Games history, would be ephemeral. Ever since the Greeks placed the first modern Olympic stadium on the site of the ancient Panathenaic Games and used it again for the 2004 Olympics, those structures have served as a showcase fixture for future generations. Rome’s Stadio Olimpico was begun by Mussolini as the cornerstone of the Foro Italico, renovated for the 1960 Games and twice since and would be utilized again should the Eternal City be selected for 2024.
But in the new cost-conscious era when cities are reluctant to spend a billion dollars on one edifice for 17 days of glory, what once was viewed as a legacy now is seen as a liability and the Lords of the Rings understand that. “I think legacy is looked at as a much broader term than bricks and mortar,” said Pound. “It can be community involvement, facilities, tourism, all kinds of measures.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.