The 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed until next year — yet one more thing Covid-19 has ruined. So to hold us over until the world comes together for the classic summer spectacle, here’s a roundup of the most stunning Olympic stadiums of games gone by.
We have to start at the home of the original games. Although it wasn’t built with the Olympics in mind, the Olympic Stadium of Athens did play host to the games in 2004. Erected between 1980 and 1982 the stadium was named for Spyros Louis, the first modern gold medalist in the marathon. What makes this venue so special is the roof, which is defined by two giant arches that flank the stadium. Created for the 2004 games, the new roof and its arches were designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
We can’t have a list of impressive Olympic stadiums without mentioning Beijing. Everything about the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Games had the world sitting in stunned silence. From the impressively choreographed show to the seemingly endless fireworks display, these games felt different – China was having its debutante ball and letting us know it is officially a power player in the world. The design for the Beijing National Stadium was just as jaw-dropping. A twisting nest of bent mental, it’s a structure that was meant to be viewed at night (when the opening ceremonies took place). Lit from within it feels like a fantastical playground that holds something truly special within. Twelve years later and China has indeed become a game changer in the world, forcing other countries to step up their Olympic stadium design game.
When a “starchitect” agrees to design an Olympic games venue, you know it’s going to be a spectacular space. Such is the case for the Aquatics Centre created by world-renowned queen of architecture Zaha Hadid. Built for the 2012 London games, the center housed all of the water games — from swimming competitions to water polo. All took place under a dramatically undulating roof — a signature Hadid look and one only she could pull off.
Who would have thought playing with soap bubbles and string would result in an Olympics-worthy roof? That’s just how engineer Frei Otto studied tensile strength and was able to come up with the design for the Olympiastadion in Munich. Built to be the main venue for the 1972 Olympic games, the stadium is surrounded by a delicately suspended roof of acrylic glass and steel cables. There was a lot of pressure on the architects for these Olympic games — they were the first to be held in post-Nazi Germany. The gentle design of the tent-like canopy was meant to symbolize a peaceful, optimistic Germany and be a reflection of the Games’ motto for that year: “The Cheerful Games.”
Leave it to Canada to create one of the more bizarre venues for the Olympics. Olympic Stadium Montreal holds a strange record — the attached Montreal Tower is the tallest inclined tower in the world with a lean of 45 degrees. Built for the 1976 summer games, the stadium has the largest seating capacity in the country. Not well loved by the people of Montreal for the exorbitant cost and constant maintenance issues, the “Big Owe” as it is referred to, has not been in much use since the Expos left for Washington in 2004. Despite all of this, it is still considered a groundbreaking piece of architecture and worthy of being among the other iconic venues on the list.
Nothing can compare to a classic and Stockholm Olympic Stadium is just that — a classically designed stadium that has stood the test of time. Built to host the 1912 Olympics, this is the oldest venue on the list. There’s something to be said for going back to the roots of architecture. The design of Stockholm Olympic Stadium speaks to the early architects of ancient Greece. It’s both a nod to the original Olympics and a statement of the time — the early 20th century was the revivalist period when most architects were reimagining ancient Roman and Greek building techniques. So even though this stadium is a bit more basic, it has a staying power many of the others lack.
The start of the new millennium brought with it hope for a brighter future, putting a lot of pressure on Australia when Sydney was selected to host the 2000 Games. To kick off the new decade, century, and millennium, Stadium Australia was created. At the time it was the largest Olympic Stadium ever built. The striking roofline was a spectacular backdrop for the opening ceremonies. While the central field was open-air, the stadium seats were covered by a gently swooping form. Perhaps the most dramatic element was the bleacher-inspired seats rising up from either end, making it appear the center of the roof had been peeled back to expose the field below. Sadly the stadium has since been renovated to better suit sports such as Australian football and cricket, but that doesn’t take away from that impressive first glimpse the world got when the ceremonies kicked off in September, 2000.
Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City is certainly the most architecturally simple venue, especially in comparison to some of the more dramatic designs. At first glance, it might be hard to see why such an understated stadium would make the list. But no other venue has the sentimental story behind it like Estadio Olímpico Universitario. Set to be the pinnacle work of his career, artist Diego Rivera got to work covering the exterior of the stadium in an elaborate mural that would represent Mexican culture, family, and the symbolic peace of the Olympics. Sadly, Rivera passed away before he could finish his work for the 1968 games. Rather than complete the piece, Mexico City chose to leave it unfinished, a beautiful tribute to the artist.
Speaking of understated architecture, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum may not look like anything special at first glance. It was never intended to host an Olympics, so the designers had other ideas in mind when coming up with the concept for the stadium. Built to be a civic venue and memorial to World War I veterans, the Memorial Coliseum had to undergo a renovation just 7 years after its completion when it was announced LA would host the 1932 Olympics. So what makes this particular venue so iconic? Look closer at the architecture and you’ll see this is one of the very few remaining Art Moderne buildings in the country. Art Deco’s final bow, Art Moderne was unique to Southern California where Spanish Mission, Art Deco, and Egyptian influences were brought together in a surprisingly cohesive look. And once LA hosts the 2028 Olympics, Memorial Coliseum will be the first ever venue to be home to three different games – 1932 and 1984 being the first two.
Talk about a feat of engineering, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium built for the 1964 games, has a suspended roof that seems to defy the laws of physics. Created at a time when most architectural calculations had to be done by hand, the swooping roofline was revolutionary when it was proposed. The result is a space so impressive, it’s still being used to this day and will be host to the handball competition when the Games (finally) take place in 2021.
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