London's Aquatics Centre falls short of other Olympic venues

From Ryan Lochte to Katie Ledecky, there were plenty of big splashes for Team USA in the pool this week, but the London Aquatics Centre itself was a dud.

Just as Horse Guards Parade exemplifies everything that organizers got right at the London Games, the Aquatics Centre this week became a showcase for where they fell short. And it starts with the venue.

From the outside, the venue looks stunning. London-based Zaha Hadid Architects designed a roof that curves and dips dramatically like a wave in the pool. The stands rise up on either side of the curve roofing, making the entire facility look like a concrete and steel replica of Michael Phelps in mid-butterfly stroke.

But inside, the venue becomes dysfunctional. The stands rise straight up beneath the dipping roof, leaving spectators a clipped view of the pool. It feels like watching a baseball game through a slit in the outfield fence. Agents, former Olympic swimmers and fans alike have complained about their sightlines this week.

Unlike other Games venues, such as Horse Guards Parade (below), the London Aquatics Centre fell short of Olympic excitement.
Then there’s in-venue atmosphere. At Horse Guards Parade, London organizers and the volleyball federation created a party. At the basketball arena, organizers and the basketball federation replicated an NBA game. But at swimming, organizers and the swimming federation created a swim meet on par with the one you might see at a nearby country club. There’s little music, the acoustics in the venue garble the emcee’s comments and there’s not much energizing the crowd other than a breakout performance by Lochte or a medal-winning performance by Great Britain’s Rebecca Addlington.

If FINA, the international swimming federation, is as interested in increasing youth interest in the sport as it says it is, then it would do well to take a cue or two from USA Swimming. The U.S. governing body has turned its Olympic Trials into a vibrant showcase for the sport full of pyrotechnics, pumping music and energetic crowds. You don’t need fireworks to go off everytime Missy Franklin sets a world record, but it’s a great way to let an international crowd know just how enormous an achievement like that is.

There’s a lot organizers of the 2016 Games in Rio can learn about both design and atmosphere by watching Saturday’s final night of swimming at the Aquatics Centre.

London organizers have done a great job of contemplating how venues will be used after these Games. The Aquatics Centre will have portions of its exterior stripped away after the Games and be converted into a community facility that is expected to attract 800,000 visitors a year.

But it’s important that the design process isn’t so focused on what a venue will be after the Olympics that it sacrifices its purpose and function during the Games.

When it comes to atmosphere, London organizers nailed it at Horse Guards Parade. They created a venue for beach volleyball that’s fun and vibrant — a true celebration of sport. USA Swimming did the same at its trials in Omaha in 2008 and 2012.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea if Rio took its inspiration from both events. Swimming, after all, has become the first week’s showcase sport. It’s time it got the celebration it deserves.

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