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The secret to Beijing’s Olympic venues? More than half the buildings were used before

How a swimming pool became a curling rink.

The secret to Beijing’s Olympic venues? More than half the buildings were used before
[Photo: Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images]

Beijing’s Water Cube has been drained. The glowing box-shaped building designed for the swimming competitions in the 2008 Summer Olympics was one of the blockbuster pieces of architecture unveiled during China’s Olympic debut. Now, 14 years later, the pool inside the so-called Water Cube has been emptied for China’s Olympic redux. A removable support structure has been inserted into the pool and a new surface laid on top. The space will now be used for curling competitions at the 2022 Winter Games.

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A view of the ‘The Water Cube’ and ‘The Bird’s Nest’ in 2008. [Photo: Visual China Group/Getty Images]

The Water Cube has become—could you see it coming?—the Ice Cube.

It’s a clever changeover for the host city, but also a reflection of what’s becoming a dominant trend in the world of Olympic bidding and hosting. Venues constructed for the games are increasingly being given second lives after the events—often as part of the planning from the start to avoid being irrelevant white elephants immediately after the few weeks of Olympic mania.

Beijing has pushed this concept the furthest yet. Of the 25 venues being used for this year’s Winter Olympics—from the ice hockey rink to the medals plaza to the curling sheet—14 are being reused from the 2008 Olympics. The main National stadium built for 2008, the so-called Bird’s Nest, will host this year’s opening and closing ceremonies as it did in 2008. The basketball arena built for the 2008 games has been upgraded to convert into an ice hockey stadium. Land used for archery events in 2008 has been developed into the new National Speed Skating Oval.

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The National Aquatic Center in 2022. [Photo: Zhang Chenlin/Xinhua/Getty Images]

The reuse of venues greatly reduced the amount of building the 2022 Olympics required, according to the Venue Planning and Construction Department of the Beijing 2022 Local Organizing Committee. “The venues of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games will not only be a reuse of the legacies of the 2008 Games, but will provide more models and possibilities for their post-Games use in the process of venue renovation,” the group wrote in an email to Fast Company.

The National Aquatic Center in 2008. [Photo: Yang Liu/Getty Images]

Beijing could be setting a new standard. Heike Alberts, associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, has researched the Olympic bidding process and what host cities can do with proposed venues after the events are over. She says the question of what should happen with event venues after the games is relatively new, as the event itself has grown.

“The Olympic Games have become so much bigger. A couple decades ago, you didn’t need so many facilities, so it wasn’t that much of an issue,” she says. “But over time, more athletes came, more and more sports were added, everything became much more extravagant, so there were more things you needed to build.”

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The challenge with Winter Olympics, she says, is that many of the sports in the competition are so specialized that any venues built to accommodate them become almost obsolete after the games are over. “If you have something like a hall for ice skating or ice hockey, that can relatively easily be repurposed, because people go skating and normal people play ice hockey. But you cannot do that with a ski jump or a bobsled track,” Alberts says.

Thinking about the long-term use of Olympic venues is a relatively new concept, and the International Olympic Committee only recently started requiring host cities to explain how they intended their Olympic projects to live on after the events—largely a response to underused or abandoned venues left behind in former Olympic host cities like Athens. All cities bidding to host either the Summer or Winter Olympics after 2012 have been required to submit “legacy reports” on the impact their hosting can have, including plans for the future of events themselves. Beijing’s legacy plan for the 2022 games says its venues will be reused after the Olympics for “the development of competitive sports, mass fitness, and diverse commercial activities.”

Reuse of venues is beginning to become almost an expectation, according to David Fannon, architecture and engineering professor at Northeastern University, who has studied the afterlives of Olympic venues in Rio de Janeiro and other former host cities.

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“It seems like the International Olympic Committee, when it chooses a winning bid, is very keen to highlight this story line, among other ecological and economic drivers, to be able to make the case that hosting the Olympics is a boon for the place that does it, and minimizes the possible adverse impacts of all this construction and development,” Fannon says.

The reuse efforts may be partly about image, Fannon says, but they can also make sense for a potential host city in economic and environmental terms. He points to the example of Los Angeles, which will be hosting the Summer Olympics for the third time in 2028 and reusing one of the same stadiums it used when it hosted back in 1932.

“Part of their pitch was that they don’t need to build that much because they have so many venues that have made a contribution to that city and they’ve been used in lots of different ways,” Fannon says.

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Beijing is hoping its own Olympic venues will have such long lives. As the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, Beijing’s Olympic experience is in many ways unique. But as an Olympic city trying to make more use out of what’s already been built, it’s part of an already encouraging trend.

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