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Olympic Gains

Building facilities for the Olympics requires short-term planning and long-range vision. Here's what Sydney's got in store for the 2000 games - and beyond

Twenty minutes east of downtown Sydney, an astonishing metal structure arches over the landscape. Towering nearly 14 stories over its predominantly flat surroundings, it provides a breathtaking introduction to the largest Olympic Stadium ever built. On September 15 next year, 110,000 people will fill Stadium Australia to see, in person, what 4.5 billion others will watch on their television screens: the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games. Two weeks later, on October 1, the Games will sign off with similar fanfare.

While almost everything about the nearly finished stadium is grand (including its $448 million price tag), it is just one small piece in a renovation and construction project of magnificent scope. Olympic officials believe it has the potential to change the way the world thinks about the intersecting concerns of development and environmental protection and renewal. Known as Homebush Bay, this 1,900-acre section of land is being touted as a model for future developments. While it isn't the only location for Olympic events, it is easily the Games' most recognizable site, featuring the highest concentration of sports facilities in Sydney.

Home to more than a dozen major sports venues, comfy hotels and a new solar-powered suburb for 6,000 residents after the Games, Homebush Bay invokes a "gee whiz" response in nearly everyone who visits it.

It's difficult to believe that just 15 years ago, the area was little more than a colossal landfill, home to a slaughterhouse, a brickworks and 9 million cubic meters of industrial and household waste that had accumulated over a 30year span of uncontrolled dumping.

"It was an eyesore," acknowledges Sandie Watson, manager of international media relations for the Olympic Co- ordination Authority. "It was a degraded site that nobody wanted. We wanted to put something in place that people could use for many years." Although Sydney's successful bid for the Olympics helped speed up the construction process, it was already underway by the time they heard the good news in 1993.

The prospect of a completely new development devoted almost entirely to athletic and recreation facilities is uncommon, and gave Sydney the opportunity to set a powerful precedent. Unlike Los Angeles, where no new facilities were built preceding the '84 Games, or even Atlanta, where 10 new facilities were built prior to the '96 Olympics, Sydney has started fresh with almost everything. Knowing of the gigantic project that lay ahead, as well as the ecologically degraded site with which they started, Sydney placed utmost priority on creating an environmentally friendly site. While other Olympic hosts have done a great deal to preserve and protect the environment - Barcelona cleaned its harbor, Lillehammer protected trees and marshes and Nagano guarded meadows of butterflies - none really compare to Sydney. From the beginning of facility construction until long after the Games are over, Sydney's commitment to environmentally sound, accessible facilities and practices has been assured; all projects are guided by the concept of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). Among the tenets of ESD are conserving and protecting plant and animal species, conserving resources and controlling pollution.

It was this philosophy that helped Sydney land the Games in the first place - a commitment to something much larger than a single event. Sydney has, in fact, dubbed its Olympics "The Green Games," and has enlisted the help of environmentalists to act as watchdogs during their construction efforts leading up to the Games. "We don't want to become complacent," says Watson. "We want to make sure that we are keeping our promises and are providing things for the long-term future." With that in mind, it's somewhat less surprising to see the lengths the Olympic Co-ordination Authority has gone to ensure topnotch facilities without a lot of waste.

To start, the OCA has tried to make sure that an "out with the old, in with the new" approach does not always apply literally. For example, when a slaughterhouse based in Homebush Bay was demolished to make room for venues, more than 200,000 cubic meters of the concrete and masonry rubble were reused at the site. Forty thousand cubic meters of earth excavated from various sites during construction have been used for landscaped embankments at the Athletic Centre. During the construction of the Sydney Showground, the waste recycling rate was an astounding 94 percent. Overall construction recycling efforts have been estimated to be between 60 and 70 percent.

The facilities themselves were also kept under strict watch. According to Michael Knight, president of the Sydney Organising Committee, "Contractors are required to adhere to strict environmental plans, which address concerns such as pollution reduction, protection of existing woodlands, controlling construction noise and limiting sedimentary runoff."

While some adaptations were made throughout the facilities - emphasizing extensive water reclamation strategies, for one, and using timber only from sustainable forests - some facilities' architects had greater opportunities to take advantage of new technologies and innovations.

The Aquatic Centre, for example, uses enough natural lighting in the facility to require only 10 artificial light fixtures during the day. Air conditioning is limited to spectator areas and restaurants. The Sydney Showground relies entirely on natural lighting during the day and uses movement-activated light fixtures to limit light usage at night. The Olympic Village will use solar power to generate all of its energy needs - after the Games, it will become the largest solar-powered suburb in the world.

It's fairly evident that Sydney will be at the forefront with its environmental innovations, but the city also hopes to become a leader with regard to accessibility as well. Homebush Bay's unique situation as a new, self-contained development makes it particularly suited to accessibility, since features were integrated throughout the entire development at the planning stage. An access committee, comprised of planners and people with a variety of different disabilities, was formed at the outset to ensure the most user-friendly design for the greatest number of people. Well-distributed lifts, ramps, assistive hearing systems, tactile ground surface indicators, accessible toilets and TTY phone systems have received praise from many. Says Watson, "We've made sure you can go from every venue on the site without using one set of stairs. And the railway station is the most accessible railway station in Sydney." Then again, one would hope the railway station would be accessible; it is one of the only ways to get to Homebush Bay. As part of its environmental vision, Homebush Bay will not have acres of parking for gas-guzzling cars; in fact, for the Games, parking will remain at fewer than 4,000 total spaces. Parking will triple after the Games, but officials want to maintain an emphasis on public transportation. During the Olympics, buses and trains will arrive every few minutes to pick up and drop off visitors to Homebush Bay. Even after the frenzy dies down, those at Homebush Bay are counting on buses, trains and the occasial ferry to provide the main methods of transport around the area.

The focus on environmental and accessibility issues occasionally overshadows the fact that many of these facilities are aesthetically stunning. Take, for example, the Olympic Stadium, the centerpiece of the Games. The huge facility is flanked by four major arches - two on each side of the venue, angled to outline spectator seating areas. Dozens of 10-by-10-meter translucent polycarbonate tiles span each of the two arches, providing shade for spectators while allowing for the growth of turf on the inside of the venue. Flexible seating allows the facility to reconfigure for special events, and restaurants are situated so that diners don't have to miss a minute of the action.

The State Hockey Center features a similarly spectacular appearance. The grandstand's gracefully curved roof is one of the first things people will see when they enter Homebush Bay. Its creators liken it to a sail plane suspended in space - 25 meters above the concourse itself. Four sharply angled light towers may look like they were installed by an abstract artist or a construction crew with a whimsical sense of humor, but designers say it makes for less peripheral light and better television broadcasts.

One of the few venues with American architects providing major project support is the Sydney SuperDome, in which the Kansas City, Mo.-based architects Devine de Flon Yaeger teamed with the Australian group Cox Richardson Architects to create a five-level, 20,000-seat indoor dome used for basketball and artistic gymnastics during the Games. A cable-stayed roof allows for a column-free interior, and it features the largest rooftop solar power system in Australia. It is expected to use 100 percent renewable energy resources.

Wary of Atlanta's last-minute scrambling in 1996, the Sydney Organising Committee has taken extra care to make sure there's plenty of time to test out the new facilities and fix any glitches well before Olympians take the stage. At Homebush Bay, all but two of the facilities have been completed. These two - the Tennis Centre and Sydney SuperDome - are expected to be completed by the end of the year. Four facilities in other locations have yet to be completed, but the latest updates indicate that all facilities will be ready for competition by early 2000.

But it all comes at a cost. While many of the projects have proceeded at or ahead of schedule, the latest statistics show that construction is nearly four percent over budget. While inflation is primarily to blame, four percent of a gargantuan $1.42 billion budget comes to a whopping $47 million. Funding is coming from a variety of sources, including the Sydney Organising Committee, but the bulk of the project - more than three quarters of the total - will be funded by the government. Despite the staggering figures, surveys show that 90 percent of all Australians supported bringing in the Games - although statistics for New South Wales, and more specifically, Sydney, were unavailable.

Such extensive efforts to provide state-of-the-art, environmentally sound facilities will doubtless inspire global praise. One question, however, remains: What will happen to Homebush Bay once the Games are over?

Whether or not Sydney, a city of nearly 4 million inhabitants, can sustain such a huge development remains unclear. Officials insist that the new facilities will attract national and international events, and that recreational users will clamor to dive into the same pool or hit tennis balls on the same courts as Olympic champions once did. They also point out that just because a facility was used for athletic pursuits doesn't mean it can't serve other purposes. "As far as we're concerned," says Watson, "the Olympics is a very short event in the lifetime of this site. We are building a site for the long-term use of the people of Sydney." Although it's impossible to gauge the probable use of facilities that have yet to be completed, officials can point to the extraordinary success of the Aquatic Centre, which opened in 1994 and has since had more than 5 million visitors. In 1997 alone, a half million more visited the State Sports Centre, an impressive figure given that it's been open for more than a decade. In 1998, 5 million came to see the partially finished or completed venues at Homebush Bay. Despite these figures, many privately worry: If a dozen equally spectacular facilities exist just miles from one another, can they all remain popular?

Some concessions, of course, have been made. As Sue Purkiss, a marketing manager for both the Athletic and Aquatic Centre, notes, much of the seating will be removed from most venues after the Games. The Olympic Stadium alone will lose more than 30,000 seats - although the remaining 80,000 won't exactly make the facility cozy. Another 10,000 seats will be removed from the Aquatic Centre to make a smaller - but still immense - 8,000-seat stadium. While officials repeatedly argue that such huge venues will attract ever-larger crowds for top-notch sporting events - indeed, it is the rallying cry of nearly everyone who will be involved with the venues after the Games - many facilities do not have that many specific events nailed down. "We'll have all sorts of international and national events at the Aquatic Centre after the Games," says Purkiss, although she declines to elaborate further.

If all this post-Games murkiness seems a bit worrisome given the $1.4 billion investment, officials aren't letting on. As the calendar shows, those at Homebush Bay still have more than a year to secure events, competitions and hopefully, people's hearts. "I think the legacy is the biggest thing," says Watson. "These venues belong to the public, they belong to the people of Sydney, and they belong to our national and international guests. When people come now to enjoy the Olympic site, we have to say, 'Hang on, do you realize that after the Olympics you can still come back and swim in the Olympic pool and run on the Olympic track?' "

Everyone at Homebush Bay certainly hopes so.

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