Olympic architecture Top 10: past, present and future

As we say goodbye to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, let's take a look back at the glories of Olympic architecture from the past, and look forward to even more innovation to come. The competition for the honor of hosting the Olympic Games is an intense, worldwide fight, but with that prize comes the tremendous responsibility of building a complex of structures to support the games.

Every Olympic city has risen to the challenge, putting its best design and creative minds into the limelight for all the world to see. Some of the efforts have been more successful than others, and a few of the host countries have spent decades paying off the debt incurred by such architectural ambition. Hit continue to see our picks for the Top 10 best Olympic buildings in history.

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Bird’s Nest (Beijing National Stadium) 2008
Beijing National Stadium’s “Bird’s Nest” nickname could be in honor of the U.S. Olympic Team’s numerous eggs laid there, but despite that, its soaring architecture puts it at the top of our list. The Chinese government held a competition in 2002 to see who could put together the most beautiful Olympic stadium yet, and a consortium of architects consisting of the Pritzker Prize-winning Herzog & de Meuron teamed up with ArupSport and China Architecture Design & Research Group to create this wild-looking tangle of steel.

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London Aquatics Centre 2012
Architect Zaha Hadid set out to top any aquatics center ever built with her fantastic design, and it’s so innovative that a lot of engineers are questioning whether such a structure can even be built at all. Don’t fret, Zaha, that’s what they said about the Empire State Building. The Aquatics Center’s sweeping steel roof will be clad in aluminum, and the interior of this wild-looking roof will be made of wood, the type of which is still yet to be chosen. Construction began on this jaw-dropping structure last month.

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Water Cube (Beijing National Aquatics Center) 2008
Set up a huge steel frame and hang hundreds of asymmetrical plastic bubbles on it and the result is the other-worldly-looking Beijing National Aquatics Center, affectionately known as the Water Cube. It's not really a cube at all, though, but a rectangular box that’s 102 feet high. We especially like its squeaky-clean design, punctuated by colorful LED lighting embedded into the exterior that makes the building look like an ’80s disco taking a bubble bath.

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China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters Building and Television Cultural Centre 2008
While it’s not an official Olympics building, construction of the China Central Television Headquarters building was finished just in time for the opening of the Olympic Games, and many of its facilities were used for the 17-day broadcast. One of the largest office buildings on the planet, the 49-story building looks like it’s about to fall over. Not to worry — the structure, dubbed “Big Shorts,” its specially designed and built to withstand huge earthquakes.

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Palestra at Olympia, 776 BC
It doesn’t look like much now, but starting in 776 BC, Palestra was where Olympic athletes suffered through their training, most of which was done stark naked, ladies. Near here is the first Olympic village, called Olympia. Legend has Heracles, son of the Greek god Zeus, building the first Olympic Stadium, measuring its size by stepping off 400 paces and calling it a Stadium (or “Stadion” in ancient Greek). That distance is still used today — 400 meters is roughly the distance covered when you run one lap around pretty much any stadium track in the world.

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London Olympic Stadium 2012
This stadium doesn’t even fully exist yet, but will be the center of attention at the 2012 Olympics in London. Construction started in May, and the 80,000-seat structure will feature a roof that somehow “stretches around the stadium” to cover the spectators and protect lighting and sound systems for the opening ceremony. We’re wondering how they’re going to top that Chinese flying torch lighter of this year’s opener, but the Brits have four years to figure that one out.

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Salt Lake City Olympic Flame 2002
This cauldron from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was situated of the top of the south edge of the rebuilt Rice-Eccles Stadium for the big event, and it’s still being lit up on special occasions today. It’s been moved from the top of the stadium into a plaza next door, a pleasant place for its retirement complete with reflecting pool and waterfalls. We should all be so lucky when we’re put out to pasture.

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Munich Olympic Stadium 1972
While the 1972 games were ill-fated with terrorist violence, architects also remember the games for the spectacular stadium made with giant canopies of acrylic glass hung by steel cables. Soon after this one was built, it seemed to touch off an informal competition where each of the Olympic cities following it tried to top its asymmetrical allure. Now such innovation has been widely copied all over the place. In fact, didn’t we just travel through an airport that looks a lot like this? We’re looking at you, Denver.

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Montréal Olympic Stadium 1976
In the most ambitious Olympics project ever, this organic architecture had a retractable roof that was opened and closed by a colossal 583-foot structure, the tallest inclined tower in the world. It’s more than just a stadium, with the Olympic swimming pool located just under the massive tower, and the velodrome in a similar building near its base. Too bad the tower wasn’t finished in time for the 1976 Olympics, due to strikes and cost overruns. Since then, the building’s main tenant, the Montréal Expos, left town for Washington, leaving the grand building without a main tenant. Sadly, it's now seen by many Montréalers as a white elephant.

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Sydney Olympic Stadium 2000
While this stadium, built for the Sydney 2000 games, looks fairly conventional these days, it still stands as the highest-capacity Olympic Stadium ever built. This one seated 110,000 screaming fans for the Olympics, but has since been reconfigured to accommodate movable seating. It now seats 83,500, with most of the spectators nestled under awnings to keep them high and dry even in the worst Aussie weather.