PtG Article 04.10.2011

London's 2012 Olympic stadium likely to become the next 'White Elephant'

“We’re breeding white elephants. There are herds of them”, a leading stadium consultant has told Play the Game. Ian Nuttall, a consultant at, was referring to the underused mega-stadiums that are the legacies of events such as the FIFA World Cup, the European Championships, and the Commonwealth Games.

With the conference being held in the shadow of one of Germany’s 2006 World Cup stadiums, it seemed an apt setting to ask whether today’s mega events are succeeding in their promise of creating a usable sporting legacy for generations to come – or, as Nuttall and others claimed, creating a large number of underused stadiums and facilities that must be paid by future taxpayers.

Stadium management is a very old business, Nuttall pointed out, but we are still getting it wrong. We continue to build stadiums without a strong anchor tenant, and local authority requirements continue to conflict with the business interests of the stadium owners. 

One of the biggest white elephants of all could be the Olympic Stadium in London, he warned, where the proposed anchor tenant -  West Ham United of English football’s second tier - is obliged to retain an unwanted athletics track when they move in. 

Nuttall also expressed fears that the new Euro 2012 stadium in Warsaw, Poland, could be another candidate for white elephant status. It has no official “legacy use” as yet, he said, and the national football team has yet to agree to play its games there.

Stadium not worth the costs

Stefan Szymanski, Professor of Sports Management at the  University of Michigan, pointed out that “people like mega events, and politicians like to please people”.

A winning bid necessarily involves a public subsidy, he pointed out, as private companies are never able to compete with the financial muscle of national governments. While an economic case can be made for the public funding of sporting infrastructure, mega events are not ideal candidates to achieve this aim.

Szymanski went on to question the figures related to the development of the 2012 Olympic site in Stratford, East London. 

The Olympics would be “too small in terms of their employment contribution to make much of an impression” on the surrounding area, and  the overall economic benefits would be limited, he said. While property prices would likely increase by between two and five percent, the entire economic value of the development would be around GBP 1.4 billion, compared with costs of around GBP 9.3 billion.

John Beech, Head of Sport and Tourism at Coventry University’s Centre for Sustainable Generation, pointed out that “anti Olympic bid” websites were on the increase.

As a prerequisite of any bid process, the International Olympic Committee requires nations to provide details of any national opposition, and Beech’s presentation looked back on the history of anti-bid websites which, he pointed pout, have become more sophisticated since the phenomena was first observed in Nagano, Japan in 1998. 

A subsequent panel discussion called for sports bodies such as UEFA to be less demanding in their stadium requirements, and for governments to be more realistic in bidding for future sporting events.

Brazil will be overextended

Raí Souza Vieira de Oliveira, the former Brazilian international soccer player who played at the 1994 World Cup, told Play the Game that the forthcoming 2014 World Cup could expose the limitations of the nation’s infrastructure and “gamble too much on the festive spirit” of the Brazilian people. 

While there was a real need to invest in grassroots sport, Rai said, the lion’s share of World Cup investment will be directed towards high performance, profitable endeavors that are aimed at achieving short term rewards. 

Rai was attending Play the Game on behalf of Atletas pela Cidadania, a Brazilian NGO that is focused on promoting physical activity and transforming grassroots sports. Its goals include doubling the physical activity rate in the 12 host cites of the World Cup by 2014 and the whole of Brazil by 2022. 

Atletas pela Cidadania has the support of more than 50 high profile Brazilian sports figures, Rai pointed out, and provided a role model that should be copied by organisations such as the United Nations.