BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 November 2007, 15:58 GMT
What do stadiums say about us?
Artist's impression of London 2012 Olympics stadium

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

London's Olympic venue has been unveiled with much fanfare, but what do national stadiums really say about the countries they are in?

A bit of grass, a running track, perhaps a sandpit.

This might be the non-sports fan's take on a national stadium, but these nexuses of the sporting world can mean much more than that.

Whether the legacy of an Olympics or a World Cup, or as the first major post-independence public building project of a new state, they are often meant to convey a message as much as simply play host to a team. Stadiums can be an expression of national mood and ambitious intent, or political dogma.

This is not a stadium that is going to be screaming from the rooftops that it's bigger and more spectacular
Rod Sheard

Some can, like Lord's cricket ground, be written into the mythology of teams from other nations. Some, like Chile's Estadio Nacional, can become associated with political oppression.

And even those countries that do not possess them, like the United States or Spain, the very absence of a national stadium can speak volumes about the power of regional identity.

Artist's impression of London 2012 Olympics stadium
The London organisers don't want a white elephant

London's Olympic Stadium is unique in that it will effectively be the national athletics stadium, but only for a matter of weeks.

The newly-unveiled design for an 80,000-seat stadium is conceived so that when the games are finished much of the superstructure will be dismantled to leave a 25,000-seat venue, mainly for athletics and the use of the local community.

Normally national stadiums seek to deliver the "wow" factor, but London aims to impress on a more modest scale.

"This is not a stadium that is going to be screaming from the rooftops that it's bigger and more spectacular," says project architect Rod Sheard. There will be some who will welcome Sheard "embracing the temporary".

London's Olympics stadium

Ellis Woodman, architecture writer for the Daily Telegraph and Building Design, is one of those who is not impressed. The outcome is the inevitable result of picking HOK Sport, "the yellow pages choice" to design it.

"Design has never been at the forefront of this. It is probably one of the most architecturally underwhelming stadiums there has ever been."

But he acknowledges that the organising committee are at least trying to tackle the age-old problem of Olympic stadiums.

"They are only ever full on three occasions - the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony and the final of the men's 100m. The London games are being sold to us as sustainable games."

This sustainability manifests in the manageable small-stadium legacy and the usual environmental concerns about minimising carbon emissions and encouraging public transport use.

But one of the most striking ideas is that the fabric used to "wrap" the stadium will be cut up and sold as bags afterwards. A stadium that symbolises the tradition of the hand-me-down perhaps?

Beijing's Olympic stadium lit up, and cloaked in smog
Beijing's smog could hide the stadium's "wow" factor

By comparison, Beijing National Stadium's pursuit of the "wow" factor is unequivocal. The desired effect is for first-time visitors to struggle to rejoin their jaw to the rest of their head. While London aims primarily to function, Beijing wants to impress.

Already dubbed the Bird's Nest, the massive stadium - a collaboration between a Chinese artist and Western architects - is covered in an intricate lattice of steelwork.

"It is an absolutely extraordinary piece of work. It has been conceived on an epic scale, mind boggling. If it's going to be a white elephant, the Chinese don't seem to be overly concerned," says Woodman.

It's easy to see the stadium as a symbol of China's increasing dominance of the economic sphere, and its desire to translate this into a more prominent place in world affairs.

"It's impressive for a number of reasons. It seem to be more than a stadium. Most stadiums look like fairly inert structures. This one looks like it could be moving towards you. Everything around it looks weak and flimsy," architecture writer Mark Irving says.

Fans walking in will see flashes of black and red through the steel cage. But the metal lattice is not merely decorative, with many of the girders either load-bearing or being used to hold other elements in place.

"What's unique is that it doesn't have a facade and a roof. The structure and the facade are the same thing," Irving notes.

But however much praise the building might earn, it has one major problem - it is often shrouded in a dense smog from Beijing's millions of cars. There have been fears for some time about the welfare of both fans and athletes.

"It is a Herculean feat of engineering, diplomatic patience and architecture, but may be defeated by athletes falling down dead with heart attacks," Irving says.

The location of the stadium will test the power of China's regime. Can they stop traffic or will it prove a Canute-like task?

Millennium Stadium
The "jewel on the Taff" is surprisingly compact

The Millennium Stadium has hosted some memorable sporting occasions, from the Welsh rugby union team clinching the Grand Slam against Ireland in 2005 to the football team beating Italy in 2002.

But long after its steelwork has rusted away, it may be that it is remembered for the noise that can be generated within.

Setting foot within it for the first time, many fans are surprised by how compact it is for a venue that seats 75,000. Steep sides rise to create a cauldron-like venue, the perfect setting for the impromptu choirs that tackle Cwm Rhondda.

"It doesn't rank particularly high in the architectural elegance stakes," says Richard Weston, professor at the Welsh School of Architecture. "It shows all the signs of being done in haste and to a fairly tight budget. In terms of the elegance of structure, in terms of the ways the different pieces join, it is seriously flawed.

"On the other hand it is one of the most exciting stadiums to be in. The ultimate quality of the architecture it is not what we are there for. Most stadiums are not that great from the outside."

The stadium did run over-budget. A dispute with the neighbouring rugby club over the demolition of a stand led to late redesigning and enhanced the compact feel of the stadium. But compared with the travails across the border with Wembley it got off lightly.

And it was the building of Wembley that amplified the status of the Millennium Stadium in its early years. With the old Wembley demolished the FA Cup was moved to Cardiff, and despite the occasional difficulties in getting there, football fans loved it.

While England struggled to finance, build and complete a national stadium, Wales had constructed one that would serve itself and its neighbour with relative ease. And it had managed to do so in the centre of a bustling and regenerating capital city.

If it stands as a national symbol, it might be more as an icon of belief that Wales can deliver international-standard public projects, and need never be in the shadow of its neighbours.

Wembley Stadium
Wembley has a magnificent arch and a terrible pitch

If Wembley is testament to anything, it is to the tricky nature of completing a large building project in 21st Century England, and to the increasing dominance of the South East in all spheres.

Supporters have been trying to cement its status as the "home of football" since its opening in 1923. But while a non-Glaswegian can accept a national stadium in Glasgow, and a north Walian would have to concede that south Wales might deserve to be the home of football, there has never been a consensus among English football fans.

"I'm not a fan," says Daily Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter, who played in the charity match that was first on the new Wembley turf.

"Football doesn't belong to the South East it belongs to the nation. England are playing Croatia on a weekday at 8pm. If you are a football mad father and you live in Jarrow, you've got no chance. It is a real pity."

After the eternal-seeming saga of its construction, there has been relatively little written about its performance as a venue.

Many who have attended matches have left surprised at how well it functions as a venue. Ignore the 10 portions of fish and chips and the drab concrete of the surrounding area, and it's a place where the queues for the toilets are reasonable, the view is unimpeded and you can get in and out safely and reasonably quickly.

Even those who don't think it looks beautiful would have to at least admit it looks striking.

"It is sensational when you look at the arc," Winter says.

But criticism of Wembley will probably never end. Its enemies will shift focus from the bad pitch, to the amount of corporate seating, to the transport or to the fact that it is in London at all. Such is the lot of an English national football stadium.

Stade de France
Paris's Stade de France is widely admired

When it was unveiled in 1998 for the World Cup in France, the Stade de France prompted six words from English fans watching on television - "why can't we just have that?". There were plenty who would happily have seen a copy of the extraordinary stadium in St Denis transplanted in place of a demolished Wembley.

"The Stade de France is so elegant as a piece of engineering," says Weston. And that is the word most commonly used about the stadium with its "floating" roof.

For French football fans, it will always be associated with their team's 3-0 humiliation of Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, a triumph that seemed to unite a nation behind a squad held up as a symbol of multiculturalism.

But there are dissenting voices about this stadium much-loved by architects.

"Among rugby fans there is a lot of nostalgia for Parc des Princes," says Ian Borthwick, rugby writer for L'Equipe. "They feel they've lost the intimacy. They recognise it as a spectacular, almost majestic, building, but it has lost its human touch."

It suffers from the "curse of the running track", the problem created by having to accommodate athletics facilities at the cost of moving fans away from the pitch.

And its location in the Ile de France is a rundown post-industrial area, unlikely to endear itself to visitors, whatever the "wow" factor of the building itself.

But it is still a symbol of effortless Gallic cool, whatever the dynamics of the crowd.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Oh dear! I thought we weren't going to get a tin shed Olympics and it seems that is exactly what is proposed. Why can't it look like the original idea and be a source of national pride and architectural significance? Why does it have to look like one of the temporary bailey bridges the army used to construct for the air display in Farnborough? It looks totally shoddy and as bitterly disappointing as the logo! What a wasted opportunity, drowned by timid small minded bureaucrats.
Robert Royle, Fleet, Hampshire

The stadium is a result of the governments involvement in the project, as they are absolutely terrified of running over budget and time, with the associated negative press (seen with the millenium dome). Its says nothing about the nation, except the timidity to express ourselves for risk of upsetting the nay sayers in this country who will no doubt point to the cost and how it could be spent on hospitals or schools. Have we completely lost our nerve as a nation?
Richard L, Newtown, Powys

The collusion of aesthetics and functionality is an understandably difficult one, but it's possible; see Munich's 'Allianz Arena' as the perfect example. There's less excuse to shirk on visual impact when it comes to something like Wembley or Cardiff's Millennium stadium, grounds that will receive pretty much constant use during their life time. But for athletics? Quite simply, whatever stadium is built, no matter how impressive, will inevitably suffer from long term neglect once the Olympics are over. And lets not be too quick to judge. The Azteca 2000 in Mexico City is a monument to concrete functionalism but still looks beautiful today. Sometimes simplicity can be the key
James, Twickenham

I've never understood the excitement that surrounded the building of Olympic stadiums. They are magnificent to look at, but after the Olympics are over, the nations that built them are left with unusable stadiums and a huge bill for construction. Personally, I feel that the best statement that the UK could have made was to refurbish the smaller stadiums and athletic tracks up and down the country and made use of these lasting arenas with our excellent British television broadcasting rather than sink billions into the new stadium.
Heather, Willenhall

Wembley has been home to the England football team for a number of years now (with the break between old and new) It has always been situated in the nations Capital, so why is it a symbol of the south east. Where else would you have a national stadium other than in the capital?
Damian, Brighton

Every English fan I met whilst the various cups were at the Millennium Stadium agreed that the atmosphere inside was superb, and having the stadium in the city centre (unlike Wembley) was genius. Perhaps they should have remained in Cardiff as a neutral ground (seeing as London is host to multiple Premiership teams)
Stephen, Cardiff

I live in Wembley and just can't stand the new stadium. there is no majesty about it, no soul, no real history for future generations. St Pancras has recieved a lot of attention this week, and the only way it managed to survive from being bulldozed by arrogant modern egotistical architects and city planners trying to leave their mark, was that a poet saw its beauty and grace - and now its a refurbished, proud landmark again!
simon luke, wembley

If Olympic stadiums are only ever full for the opening and closing ceremonies, why not hold those at Wembley, then build a smaller athletics stadium? Then there'd be no need for the temporary seating, and a bit more thought could have been put into its architecture instead.
Jonathan, Didcot, UK

Personally I disagree with most of what the architects say (Olympic and Millenium). Without wanting to stereotype they are concentrating too much on the aesthetics. They give the impressioin that they'd rather have a white elephant for the Olympic Stadium.
James Cant, Scotland

I was really impressed by the initial petal/leaf design that was seen on the promotional shots for the Olympic part. This final design, however, is decidely uninspiring, in fact even boring. Hardly an appropriate centre-piece for such an important event...
Peter Stean, London, England

Wembley, so much money spent, the wonders of a moving roof then you realise that the roof doesn't close making it the poor relation to Cardiff when it comes to performing in the rain. Anyone see the American Football match in the rain... embarrassing!
Simon Smith, Camberley Surrey

If national stadiums can indeed be a symbol of mood, ambition and foresight then the new Wembley Stadium fits perfectly into are national physche. Awash with concrete and plastic mouldings, overpriced fast-food bought by the ignorant masses, a quarter of the seating taken up for corporates and an insanely OTT metal arch that is supposed to be symbolic of our national architectural pride. If this is our stadium then it personifies the state of our people.
Tom Walters, Southsea

If you compare the 'widely admired' and 'elegant' Stade de France with the artists impression of the 'underwelming' London Olympic stadium you would be hard pressed to see too much difference. Lets stop the subtle knocking the London games and start asking the real question 'why can't we keep the 80,000 seat stadium ans use it for something useful?' We could upgrade our existing athletics stadia in Sheffied, Crystal Palace, Gateshead, Edinburgh and Birmingham for the cost of knocking down a three week old stadium. What a waste!
Jason White, Paris

Dont criticise any stadium until you have been to Murrayfield. the old stadium may have been crumbling but the atmosphere it generated was phenomenal - unlike the mausoleum it has now become. and what's with that 100 metre running track?
Bill, uk

When I saw the original 'petals' stadium it seemed to be an elegant match for anything that had gone before. When I heard that the 'finalised' stadium was being shown today I had a slight sinking feeling about how it might be compromised. But when I saw it I was shocked - I wasn't prepared for the actual thing to be QUITE so pathetic.
Binc, London

The stadium does not have the same impact that you get from stadiums like the Stade De France, Wembley, Telstra Stadium. Somewhat dissapointed
Sukhi Singh, pboro

From the artists impression it looks to be an impressive stadium and not too gimmicky. Having said that, however can the huge cost be justified? 500000 is 66% higher than the 2004 estimate. Cost of living increase + VAT? I don't think so. In any event why was VAT not included in the original estimate unless it was a ruse to make the building more acceptable pricewise.
Geoff Manning, Lower Kingswood England

2012 Olympic Stadium, Wembley Stadium symbol of a waste of money and a few lining their already full pockets with tax payers money with less than 50 % of the country benefiting from it and as always costing more to build in London than anywhere else in the whole universe. Wembley would have been cheaper to build on the moon than in London!
Peter Rewko, Manchester

Branding Wembley as the stadium of the south east is bang on, and it's pretty sad really. It would seem that London is determined to be selfish about things like this. England is supposed to be one country, so why is it that England fans in the North or South-West are put at such a massive disadvantage when it comes to watching home games. I say knock it down again and build something better somewhere that's more accessible to everyone.
Dave J, Brighton, Sussex

What, no mention of the Olympic stadium in Munich? Over thirty years after the event for which it was built it remains a beautiful piece of architecture that sits perfectly within the surrounding landscape and can still host major sporting events with efficiency. If only the facilities designed for the London Olympics contained the same forsight, intelligent design and creativity of Munich.
George, UK

It seems wrong that so much money is spent on sport - already dripping with cash - for just a few weeks in 2010, but tiny theatres and music groups don't even get the few hundred they need to survive. We've become a nation that glorifies and worships athletic prowess and belittles and ignores artistic endeavours.
Nona, London

Having been at rugby internationals at the Stade de France three times, it has probably the WORST toilets in any stadium I have been to - every time they have been flooded. An "elegant piece of engineering" it may be, but toilets should work!
Redpanda, Aberdeen

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific