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The end of the white elephants, also in the Olympic Games

6 Dec 2021   ·   

The Thai kings gave their enemies white elephants to lead them to financial ruin, an expensive animal to maintain. An animal that also did not produce anything. This is where the expression we apply today to sports facilities comes from, venues that become obsolete after a high initial investment. Or, in the best of cases, to have a deficient level of activity. They will neither achieve the return on the investment made throughout their useful life nor will they be sustainable by themselves to close the year positively. As I said, an enemy that leads you to ruin.

How do you get to have one of these white elephants?

There were cases with enormous impact generated by the international sports competitions with the most extraordinary follow-up for a long time. However, you don’t even need one of those events for them to occur. In each market, we find extensive and medium-sized facilities whose investment does not make any sense. Besides, facilities that don’t work as a legacy when built on a specific event. And how do you get to have one of these white elephants?

Six causes usually appear mixed in all projects, with weight of some of them:

  • Short-term vision,
  • absence of strategic planning, personalised business model and plan,
  • non-existent or wrong legacy,
  • lack of specialised professionals,
  • political decisions and/or
  • pressure from organisms.

Proper strategic planning is essential

The range of measures to adopt to avoid them is just the opposite. The venues must be designed with a long-term vision, seeking benefit for the community, and preventing the effect of immediacy and personalism. Proper strategic planning will allow you to set objectives and make decisions with all the facts on the table and the necessary advance notice so that they are executed with guarantees.

It is also necessary to implement a business model in the design of the custom-made venue, aligned with the market, with the potential profile of future clients, and with the competitive environment where the facility is located. The design of a realistic business plan – not idealistic- will determine the activity and route of the venue to generate the income that achieves the return on the investment in the shortest possible term and achieves financial sustainability by itself.

The legacy proposal must be pragmatic and tangible, where compliance with the economic plan is the same level as the venue’s contribution to the community.

Each area must be led and developed by an expert in each field, all coordinated globally to meet the steps and objectives of the general business plan.

Actions must also be respected by political decisions and by the requirements of the organisations, without distorting the ideas that support the strategic plan and the business plan.

It is not easy at all, but it is much easier now when social awareness has pushed national and international organisations, governments, public and private entities to raise the self-sustainability of each project. If there is no tangible return, it should not be invested, and if there is no sustainable legacy, the competition should not be embraced.

The strategic plan of London 2012

A notable example of this goal being pursued for the first time was the London 2012 Olympic Games. Its strategic plan set the goal that each pound invested would allocate only 0.25 to the Games, and the remaining 0.75 to the legacy after these. A declaration of intent says much more than some individual actions that we may know in other projects.

The result is the current Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with more than 30 million visitors a year. A destination in London with different attractions that work, a specific product. An area that creates value for the city and at the same time can generate income and be the engine of residential and tertiary development.

The Olympic stadium, to be the home of West Ham United and the rest of the park, required further investment to adapt them to the legacy plan. Some venues were designed to be completely removable, and others were reduced after the games, such as swimming pools. The original plan allowed them to do all of this. If we look back, we will find many similarities with the Olympiapark in Munich from 1972. This Park is today an essential space for leisure and entertainment in the German city.

But despite planning, London still must work hard to achieve economic benefits and actual active use by the London community.

Tokyo 2020, good planning or white elephant?

We find the Olympic Games of Tokyo 2020 in this key, followers of the London model. We still must allow time to evaluate the project, but it has had a sharp vision of its legacy to the city as a starting point. A clear example has been the unprecedented decision on the winning design of the Olympic stadium, a spectacular proposal by Zaha Hadid Architects. Its construction costs skyrocketed, so it was replaced by a more rational one, finally built—a challenge to the usual way of acting in these cases.

But even if Tokyo fails, it is also possible to correct the errors in the future. As the case of the Estadio de la Cartuja in Seville, the Spanish white elephant par excellence after the 1999 World Athletics Championships. The regional government has launched a recovery plan whose first step has been the agreement to host the different RFEF teams’ games to place value on the facility. After the challenge of Euro 2020, the strategic plan envisaged for the revitalisation of the stadium should give results in the coming months. Even the most prominent white elephant can become a successful project by applying the appropriate measures.


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