London has hosted the Summer Olympics three times since they were first staged in 1896 – but it was the 1908 Olympic Stadium that set the pattern for almost all subsequent venues, thanks to the genius of the structural engineer responsible for its innovative design.
It was also the first to have a significant legacy effect on the host city.
Noted civil engineer John James Webster received the commission to design the main stadium thanks to an eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples in Italy. Originally Rome had won the bidding ahead of London and Berlin, but in 1906 large parts of Naples were devastated by a major eruption from Vesuvius and funds earmarked for the Summer Games had to be diverted to the reconstruction of the historic city. This came as some relief to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as it had become increasingly obvious that Rome was unlikely to be ready on time.
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London was asked to step into the breach, largely because it had already developed plans for the 1908 Anglo-French Exhibition. Held to celebrate the “Entente Cordial” of 1904, the exhibition took place on 57ha of farmland in west London, just north of Shepherd’s Bush.
More than 100 elaborate, white-painted pavilions in the Oriental style surrounded a central artificial lake, there were canals, funfair rides and a scenic railway.
Plans for what was swiftly dubbed the “Great White City” had originally included a modest athletics stadium. The British Olympic Association persuaded the exhibition organisers to build a larger facility suitable for the Summer Games at their own expense, in return for a share of the gate receipts. This was officially known as the “Great Stadium”, but soon became better known as the White City Stadium.
This was to be only the fourth Summer Games, and there was little helpful to be gleaned from earlier events. For the 1896 Athens Games a marble reconstruction of an ancient Greek stadium was built on original foundations. Although visually impressive, as an athletics stadium it had major shortcomings.
Horseshoe running track
Not least of these was the horseshoe shaped running track, only 330m long. Competitors in races longer than 200m had to negotiate right angled corners in a melee of flying elbows. Spectators sat or stood on marble terraces, and there was no permanent weather protection.
The 1900 Games in Paris were a minor sideshow at the Paris World Fair. Athletics took place at a suburban football field without a cinder running track. So small was the venue that the best efforts of the javelin throwers often ended up in the trees surrounding the field. So chaotic was the organisation that many athletes actually missed their events.
Nor was there much to be learned from the next Games in Saint Louis, in the United States. The main stadium was originally commissioned by Washington University for its own use, and had a spectator capacity of no more than 4,000. Its design was inspired by Roman arenas, and its only innovative feature was the widespread use of reinforced concrete.
Clean sheet of paper
So Webster had a virtually clean sheet of paper when he began work on the White City Stadium in late 1906. The priority was speed of construction; there was only token architectural input. Webster was chosen not so much because of his track record in bridge design, more because he had experience with less conventional structures.
His crowning achievement was the Runcorn Transporter Bridge, the largest in the world. More relevant, perhaps, were his designs for several elegant seaside piers around the UK.
The final design for the Olympic stadium introduced the classic oval form, with covered grandstands alongside the straights and open terraces at each end. Spectator capacity was 68,000, all seated
Following the precedent of Saint Louis a “three laps to the mile” running track was pencilled in, outside of which was a banked cycle track.
For the first and only time, the Olympic swimming pool was located in the infield. Before that, all aquatic events had been held in open water. However, as the London pool was unheated, unfiltered and not chlorinated, it was not a great success.
Webster’s final design featured a modular steel framed structure with 50mm thick reinforced concrete platform units spanning nearly 7m between inclined rolled steel joists. Latticed steel columns braced by “continuous channel bars” supported the joists.
Echoes of seaside piers
There were distinct echoes of seaside pleasure pier construction in the structural concept, and the design overall failed to win more than grudging approval from the architectural community.
Thanks to the innovative design, contractor George Wimpey erected the stadium in just 10 months at a cost of £60,000 – about £3.5M in today’s money.
As a legacy structure the White City Stadium was a great success. Over nearly eight decades it hosted everything from championship boxing to motorcycle speedway. In 1927 the stadium was taken over by the Greyhound Racing Association. New covered terracing was built and a restaurant added.
Greyhound racing was to continue until the stadium finally closed in 1985, with crowds of more than 90,000 for premier events.
Athletics was not forgotten. A “four laps to the mile” running track was installed in 1931 and used for the Amateur Athletics Association Championships until 1970. In 1934 the stadium hosted the second British Empire Games and the fourth Women’s World Games.
The Great White City itself went on to host four more major exhibitions, before being progressively demolished during the course of the 20th Century. Millions of visitors attended the exhibitions, and events at the Stadium, with attendant economic benefits for Shepherd’s Bush and its neighbours.