Day 6

Why demolishing its Olympic stadium might be South Korea's best move

Officials in South Korea plan to destroy their $136 million Olympic stadium after using it just four times. Economist Victor Matheson says it's probably their best option.
A scene from the opening ceremony at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. (Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)

Plenty of Olympic host cities find themselves wondering what to do with the massive stadiums they build for the Games' opening ceremonies.

Montreal is a case in point. The Quebec city spends an estimated $30 million per year in upkeep on their outdated Olympic stadium, which was built in 1976.

Last fall, the provincial government committed an additional $250 million to replace the roof by 2023. This is despite the fact that no major sports team plays in the venue. 

But while the financial cards may be stacked against former Olympic hosts, future cities might be tempted to take a page out of South Korea's Olympic stadium strategy.

After the closing ceremony for the Paralympic Games in March, the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium will be torn down.

It will have been used a total of four times — once for each of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., says that's probably the best way forward.

"The only thing worse than this is ... spending tens of millions of dollars a year trying to upkeep a facility that essentially never gets used," he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The opening ceremony featured an impressive fireworks display. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)


Underused infrastructure

While South Korea's bid for the 2018 Olympic Games included a disposable stadium from the start, officials are already struggling to figure out what to do with many of their other Olympic venues.

According to Kim Tong-Hyung of the Associated Press, one suggestion to turn the stadium into a gambling venue was dismissed.

Another plan to host a corporate hockey team in the Gangneung Hockey Center fell apart, writes Tong-Hyung.

With that in mind, the idea of a throwaway stadium doesn't seem so far-fetched — and Pyeongchang isn't the first host city to do so.

Albertville, France took a similar approach in 1992, tearing down their stadium shortly after the Games ended.

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England took a slightly different tactic.

"One of the major London venues was actually moved up north into Glasgow to host the Commonwealth Games a couple years later," Matheson says.

He thinks that we'll see this approach become more common as the Games become costlier.

"We're not going to see as many permanent iconic stadiums," Matheson says. "We're also not going to see cities willing to put $100 million in for something that's just going to be used a few times."

Fireworks explode around a performer during the opening ceremony at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium on Feb. 9, 2018. ( Lars Baron/Getty Images)


Architectural legacy

Despite their high cost, lavish, expensive stadiums tend to play a key role in countries' Olympic bids. It's not just about an abundance of snow and hills for skiing, according to Matheson. 

"It's about coming up with everything you need to host a Games and [putting] on a better show than any potential competitors," he says.

Consider the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The historic stadium was refurbished for the 2016 Summer Olympics at a cost of nearly $500 million USD, according to CNN.

But in the months following the Olympics, with few event bookings and little money to spare, the stadium ended up eerily empty — looted of electronics and chairs — and in need of significant repair.

So, in preparing their bid, Pyeongchang went in a different direction.

"They said, 'we're going to build this unbelievably fancy temporary stadium that's going to put us over the edge in the minds of the Olympic judges,'" Matheson explains.

While it leaves the small city with a lessened architectural legacy, it also saves them money in the long run.

Fireworks explode to signal the start of the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang on Feb. 9, 2018. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)


Permanent host cities

The solution to this Olympic-sized stadium fatigue, Matheson says, is for the IOC to name a handful of permanent host cities.

"Say a Salt Lake City, somewhere in Europe and maybe a South Korea or a Japanese location," he tells Bambury.

That way, Matheson says, the massive stadiums would be used at least four times every 12 years, rather than just four times over their entire lifespan.

He believes it's a plan that could help ensure the economic viability of the Games — especially as cities and taxpayers rebuke the high price tag for hosting an Olympiad.

"No one should really be thinking about this as a reasonable amount to be spending for an Olympics," Matheson says of the nearly $13 billion pricetag associated with this year's Olympic Games.

"Voters in cities looking to host future Games have been saying 'no' again and again and again."

To hear our full interview with Victor Matheson, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.