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Shaun White’s soaring, gold-medal performance in halfpipe snowboarding at the 2010 Winter Olympics set a new standard for the sport, which began in the 1970s but has evolved rapidly thanks to the ever-changing design of the halfpipe. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Shaun White’s soaring, gold-medal performance in halfpipe snowboarding at the 2010 Winter Olympics set a new standard for the sport, which began in the 1970s but has evolved rapidly thanks to the ever-changing design of the halfpipe. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

2014 Winter Olympics

Stadiums push athletes to new heights Add to ...

Can the design of sporting facilities transform a sport’s very nature? To most Canadians the answer is obvious. They’ll think back to the 1972 Canada-Soviet Union hockey series, or recall that players such as Joe Thornton were recently left off the Canadian Olympic team because of concerns about the big ice, or remember that the European and North American games developed in dramatically different ways largely because of differences in rink width, a design detail if ever there was one.

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Since 2002, the Canadian men’s team, playing a game that has evolved to be more physical and north-south, took gold medals at the two Olympics played on North American-sized rinks but placed seventh in 2006 at the Turin Games. There, the dimensions were European, as will be the case at the Sochi Games this year.

The effects of design will be much in evidence in Sochi, as it is in many facets of sports and recreation, says Bruce Carscadden, the head of his Vancouver-based architectural firm that specializes in the field.

Consider the snowboard halfpipe, a popular recent addition to the Olympic menu. The sport was only invented in the 1970s, and the first pipes were scarcely more than creek beds shovelled into form. By the 1990s, advances in grooming equipment allowed for walls as high as five and six metres, but riders found that the half-circle geometry of the day didn’t allow enough time for setting up tricks. Designers stretched the courses into an oval shape, with more distance between the walls. This adjustment allowed the walls to be made even taller, which in turn enabled a whole new batch of tricks that helped cement the sport’s appeal, ultimately leading to the emergence of stars such as American Shaun White and the sport’s Olympic debut in 2010 in Vancouver.

Curling is infinitely older than the halfpipe, dating to the 16th century, but in Canada especially it has been enjoying a bloom of popularity, and again design gets some of the credit. For decades the best teams played a takeout game, since the ice could not be relied upon for consistent delicate draws.

But beginning in the 1980s the advent of purified water and other ice-making and climate-control developments played a big role (along with rule changes) in the shift to a more aggressive and tactical style that’s a lot more fun to both play and watch. Pro circuits, TV popularity, a participation bump and the arrival of national heroes such as Sandra Schmirler and Kevin Martin followed, along with induction as an Olympic sport.

At recent Olympics, a chunk of the design effort has gone into ensuring that facilities and playing surfaces are exceptionally fast, so that crowds can be thrilled and records can be set. Records are less likely at sea level than at altitude, to the joy of Olympic host cities such as Calgary and Salt Lake City and the despair of Vancouver and Turin. Located on the shores of the Black Sea, Sochi is just a few dozen metres above sea level, but it’s a safe bet that architects of the various facilities were made aware of what the viewing public likes to see.

Certainly that was the case at the Summer Games in London in 2012, where the pool, track, gymnasium and velodrome were designed with fastest, highest and strongest clearly in mind. Gymnasium floors, for example, were made extra springy, which gave gymnasts such as “flying squirrel” Gabby Douglas the confidence to attempt some of the most difficult routines in gymnastics history.

To widespread surprise, nine swimming world records were set, even though controversial full-body suits had recently been banned. But then, the pool was designed with the explicit goal of fast times.

Wave-producing walls were eliminated and the circulation system could be stilled, giving swimmers in the lead water that was completely ripple-free. Meanwhile, at the track there was a softer, bouncier surface designed to absorb footsteps laterally as well as backward and forward, and this was located inside a stadium with a roof design intended to minimize wind. Usain Bolt set another Olympic record while winning the 100-metre race, while he and his Jamaican 4X100 relay teammates shattered the world record.

For all that, Mr. Carscadden believes that the most transformative aspects of design are currently being directed more at the recreational and participatory end of sports. He cites the modern swimming pool.

“It’s always been a tug of war between the swimming team and the leisure swimmer,” he says. In the past, the swim team inevitably won, and today that’s less the case. So a trip to a recently built aquatic centre need not be restricted to lane swimming inside a concrete bunker but rather might encompass slides, warm water lanes and indoor-outdoor passages, with all of this carried on inside a beautiful and generously windowed building.

A similar trend is also evident with skating, he says, citing the outdoor rinks popping up in several Canadian cities and a new green-roofed complex in Umea, Sweden, that looks and acts more like a park pavillon than the industrial structures typical of the form.

Looking to the future, it’s entirely possible that design’s most transformative Olympic moment may come in, of all things, golf. That sport returns to the Olympic program in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, on a course designed by Gil Hanse, an American architect whose minimalist style is returning to fashion. (Other minimalists include Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw, David McLay Kidd, Tom Doak and Canadian Rod Whitman.) With their often huge and wonky putting surfaces and typically firm and fast conditioning, minimalist courses require golfers to play a dramatically different game than the North American, target-oriented norm. To be successful, pros and hackers alike must calculate bounces and employ bump-and-run shots along the ground. Let the team-picking prognostications begin.