Coolest Olympic Stadiums
When spectators take their seats in London’s new Olympic Stadium, they’ll be focused on the moment: cheering athletes competing for track-and-field gold. But the stadium is designed to outlast the 2012 Summer Games: the lightweight, ecofriendly structure will be reduced to a more functional size (25,000 seats) as part of the Olympic Park, complete with gardens and a riverfront promenade.
London’s building boom is typical for host cities eager to make a big impression on the world stage. But the coolest stadiums make an enduring impression, not only through architectural flair and historic importance, but also by hosting events, guided tours, and sports activities that let visitors get a taste of Olympic glory. In Beijing, for instance, the cutting-edge Bird’s Nest stadium now attracts wintertime athletes to its indoor ski resort.
With the cost and complexity of these colossal wonders, it’s no surprise that things don’t always goes as planned. The now iconic Montreal stadium, with the world’s tallest inclined tower, was only partially finished in time for the 1976 Olympics. A funicular takes tourists up to observation floors for spectacular views of the Laurentian Mountains. But they come at a hefty price: the stadium is one of the world’s most expensive, coming in at $1.4 billion in today’s dollars.
The lead-up to the 2004 Athens Olympics may be the most infamous boondoggle, and the city’s coolest Olympic venue remains its first: the white-marble Panathenaic Stadium dating to the first modern Olympics in 1896. Founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin presided over the unveiling, saying: “A living stadium has not been seen for centuries.” Sports arenas of the type we’re now familiar with had died out with the Greek and Roman empires; in the following centuries, most sporting events took place on fields before temporary grandstands.
The Panathenaic Stadium—where you can jog on the same track used by the first modern Olympians—was just the beginning of the stadium’s comeback. Read on for more ways to explore celebrated sports arenas.
Munich, which prior to the 1972 Olympics had no major sporting venues, transformed a rubble wasteland into a 210-acre complex that’s since attracted more than 157 million visitors. You can scale the stadium’s heights on the Roof Climb tour and then choose your own adventure on the way down: rappelling or ziplining. A more leisurely tour of Mexico City’s stadium, meanwhile, reveals murals by Diego Rivera.
Panathenaic Stadium 1896 Olympics, Athens
The Olympics, as we know them, started here, fittingly in Greece and in a marble U-shaped stadium modeled on that built by Lycurgus around 330 B.C. for the Panathenian games. The original was lost and buried until excavations in the 1830s uncovered traces of the ancient marble. It was rebuilt in time for the opening ceremony of the 1896 games, and also hosted the archery and the finishing line for the marathon at the 2004 games.
Gold Medal Moment: In 1896, James Connolly won the first Olympic medal in more than 1,500 years (in the triple jump). He went on to win an additional silver and bronze medal for the U.S.
Nowadays: Run on the same track that the first modern Olympians did—open to joggers from 7:30 to 9 a.m. daily.
Stockholm Stadium 1912 Olympics, Stockholm
The smallest of the Olympic stadiums has a huge reputation. It’s witnessed more athletic records broken than any other stadium worldwide: 83 or 87, depending on whom you ask.
The castle-like venue was the scene for the tug-of-war, equestrian, gymnastics, wrestling, and track-and-field events in 1912. Quarantine regulations meant it also hosted equestrian competitions for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It’s still used as a sports arena for the Stockholm marathon.
Gold Medal Moment: Jim Thorpe, a Native American from the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, won gold in the pentathlon and decathlon.
Nowadays: Take in the DN Galan Diamond League track meet, an annual sporting event that brings together the world’s best emerging athletes in the historic arena.
Olympic Stadium Berlin 1936 Olympics, Berlin
When Berlin won the right to the 1936 Olympics, Hitler saw it as a propaganda opportunity. He demolished the National Stadium and replaced it with an imposing new arena ringed by stone columns. The stadium was packed with 110,000 spectators for the opening and closing ceremonies, track and field, equestrian, soccer, and handball. The stadium has since gone through two major upgrades (and a subtle denazification) and is the home turf for German soccer club Hertha BSC.
Gold Medal Moment: American Jesse Owens won gold medals (in the 100 meter, 200 meter, 4x100 meter relay, and the long jump), broke nine Olympic records, and set three world records.
Nowadays: The 120-minute Premium Tour covers athletics, architecture, and the darker side of this Olympic Games.
University Olympic Stadium 1968 Olympics, Mexico City
The thin air in the stadium—located 7,349 feet above sea level—was an initial concern among athletes, but was then credited with aiding the record-setting and a soaring gold-medal leap by U.S. long jumper Bob Beamon. Built in the 1950s on a lake of solid lava, the Olympic Stadium, along with the entire Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it represents “20th-century modernism integrating urbanism, architecture, engineering and landscape design.”
Nowadays: Discover murals by Mexican artists Diego Rivera (University Stadium), David Alfaro Siqueiros (Rectorate Tower), Juan O’Gorman (Central Library), and Francisco Eppens (Medical School) on a walking tour through the university.
Olympic Stadium Munich 1972 Olympics, Munich
Designed by architect Günther Behnisch and engineer Frei Otto, the Munich stadium has canopies of glass that make it an airy contrast to the venue in Berlin. The stadium held up to 80,000 for the opening and closing ceremonies, track-and-field, equestrian, soccer, and modern pentathlon events—as well as the heart-wrenching memorial service for Israeli athletes taken hostage and killed during the games.
Gold Medal Moment: Mark Spitz, one of the greatest swimmers in history, won seven gold medals for the U.S. at the games.
Nowadays: Learn about the history and architecture of the stadium as you scale its heights on the Roof Climb tour, then take the direct way down (rappelling) or the indirect route (zipline).
Montreal Stadium 1976 Olympics, Montreal
When Queen Elizabeth opened the Games of the XXI Olympiad, construction work still hadn’t been finished on the distinctive inclined tower meant to support a retractable roof. Despite the Big O’s missing components, the opening and closing ceremonies, track and field, soccer, and equestrian went off successfully. Finally completed in 1987, the stadium continued to have troubles (the retractable roof was replaced with a fixed roof), but the bold design has plenty of fans—and the swimming pool and biodome are tourist favorites.
Gold Medal Moment: American Bruce Jenner (of recent Keeping Up with the Kardashians fame) became a national hero when he won the gold medal in the decathlon.
Nowadays: Ride the funicular to the tower’s observation floors for great views. At the base of the tower, you’ll find an aquatic center, botanical garden, and insectarium, and it’s a short walk to the Maisonneuve Market.
Seoul 1988 Olympics
It was a big day for national pride when South Korea won the rights to the 1988 games—only the second to be hosted in Asia. Many of the venues, including the gracefully curved, 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium, were built in advance and tested during the 1986 Asian Games. It now hosts the soccer team Seoul United FC, as well as concerts, and is part of a bigger sports complex.
Gold Medal Moment: Florence Griffith-Joyner added three golds and a silver to her previous Olympic wins and still holds the record for the 200-meter dash: 21.34 seconds.
Nowadays: Explore Olympic Park, two miles from the stadium, where the sights include the Mongchontoseong (Earthen Fortress), a sculpture garden, and the Olympic museum.
Centennial Olympic Stadium 1996 Olympic, Atlanta
Not every city has a need for an 80,000-seat track-and-field stadium after the Olympics have come and gone. In Atlanta, the solution was to turn the home of medal winners into the home of the Braves. Not long after the closing ceremony, the north end of the asymmetric stadium was razed as planned (materials from the demolition were repurposed in the conversion). Seven months later, Turner Field was ready for pitchers and catchers, rather than pole-vaulters and sprinters.
Gold Medal Moment: Carl Lewis won gold in the long jump for the fourth time, bringing his Olympic medal count to nine.
Nowadays: Root for the home team at a baseball game. You can tour Turner Field, but don’t expect much Olympic atmosphere or trivia—you’re more likely to learn the tomahawk chop.
ANZ Stadium2000 Olympics, Sydney
This huge stadium packed in 114,714 for the closing ceremony and a jubilant crowd of 112,524 the day Australian Cathy Freeman won the 400-meter final. Designed to be the centerpiece of Sydney’s Olympic Park, the original Australia Stadium was reconfigured—and twice renamed—after the Olympics. It can now be used as an oval or in rectangular mode to accommodate all kinds of sports events: rugby league, rugby union, Australian rules rugby, soccer, and cricket.
Gold Medal Moment: Marion Jones won three golds and two bronzes but later forfeited all medals after admitting the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Nowadays: Get an eyeful of the stadium and beyond during the Gantry tour, which takes you 150 feet above the playing field. If you’d rather keep your feet on the ground (and maybe place them on an Olympic medal dais), try the Explore tour.
Beijing National Stadium 2008 Olympics, Beijing
The Bird’s Nest, as it’s been nicknamed, has a bold, ambitious look appropriate for the Beijing Games, which dazzled viewers with a four-hour opening ceremony starring 15,000 performers. Described by the architects Herzog & de Meuron as a “chaotic thicket of supports, beams and stairs,” the 91,000-seat stadium (80,000 after the games) came in well under budget. It has yet to find a permanent tenant, but remains a popular tourist destination, as does the Water Cube (National Aquatics Center), now a water park.
Nowadays: Here’s a rare stadium where you can play in the (artificial) snow, with wintertime activities like sled runs and an ice-skating rink.
BC Place Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver
A fixture of the Vancouver skyline since 1986, BC Place came in handy as the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics—and the use of an existing venue showed a level of fiscal restraint that’s rare for Olympic organizers. That said, the games were, as Laurenz Kosichek, project architect at Stantec, put it, “a catalyst for the refurbishment of the stadium,” with upgrades including a retractable roof.
Nowadays: With more than 200 events a year, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the renovated building, which is also the site of the BC Sports Hall of fame.
London Olympic Stadium 2012 Olympics, London
The original bid for the London Olympics included drawings for a fantastical new stadium with a huge price tag. But then the economy went downhill, and it suddenly made a heck of a lot of sense to build something Londoners could afford and use. The resulting stadium—on display for the opening and closing ceremonies—is surrounded by water on three sides and a model of green building, made with recycled concrete and limited amounts of steel (much of it used piping). After the games, the stadium will be partly dismantled down to a useful size, and the surrounding 560-acre Olympic Park will be transformed into recreational areas and wetland. It’s just one of the cool new attractions timed to the Olympics and altering London’s skyline.