Published July 22, 2012
HELSINKI – If Londoners need inspiration on how to ensure that the Olympic legacy lives on long after the Summer Games, they may want to throw a glance at Helsinki.
Sixty years after the Finnish capital hosted the Olympics, almost every stadium built is still being used for the purpose it was intended.
"We can still see the 1952 Games as we walk in the city," said history professor Juhana Aunesluoma of Helsinki University. "We still have almost all of the monuments that were built for the 1952 Games. The venues, they are still part of the city structure."
In London, six out of eight facilities at Olympic Park have their future secured, but a multi-million pound (dollar) plan to lease the Olympic stadium to a London soccer club fell through amid legal wrangling last year.
Now, new bids are being considered for London's stadium, including plans from a local soccer club and for use as a Formula One race track. A preferred bidder has finally been chosen for the press and broadcast centers, while the basketball arena will be dismantled once the games are over, with possible use as a pop-up stadium for future sports events.
Helsinki's Olympic Stadium was on duty just last month hosting the European Athletics Championships. The nearby aquatic center, velodrome, and rowing stadium are all still standing and in frequent use. An indoor sports hall which hosted wrestling, boxing and gymnastics fulfills the same role today.
Other major infrastructure projects completed for the 1952 Games such as Helsinki's airport and a ferry passenger terminal at the harbor are also still in use, built to last in a financially tough decade when Finland was still recovering from three wars and paying crippling reparations to the Soviet Union.
Like London, the Helsinki Olympic Village was built to be converted into a social housing project after the games were over. Today, the neighborhood of Kapyla is a much-sought-after part of the city to live in.
"It's beautiful and green and the buildings are ones the people really like," Aunesluoma said. "The aesthetic eye of 1952 is pretty much the way we like to see our neighborhoods still today."
Of course, most Helsinki venues could no longer cope with the demands of modern international sports events. The outdoor pool and velodrome are maintained only to national-level competition standards.
The Olympic Stadium in Helsinki has undergone several refurbishments over the years and work started on another intensive maintenance and make-over almost as soon as the last medal was presented at June's European Athletics Championships.
While the wooden seating inside the stadium might be a functional mainstay of Nordic design, it was never very comfortable. And facilities for athletes, officials and the media are wholly outclassed by modern stadia.
Still, the Olympic stadium has enjoyed many years at the heart of the Finnish capital's architectural landscape.
Vesa Tikander, a researcher at the Sports Library of Finland, said the 1952 Games are sometimes referred to nostalgically as "the last real Olympic Games," because of their relatively small scale, lack of commercialism and familial location right in the heart of Helsinki.
In contrast to London, the 1952 Olympics were a modest affair with roughly half the number of athletes competing in half the number of medal events.
The sports equipment inventories have grown in leaps and bounds over the past six decades — London has ordered 600 basketballs for competition use, compared to Helsinki's 60, and 2,700 soccer balls compared to Helsinki's 200.
Advertising, funding and sponsorship have changed beyond all recognition in the last 60 years as well. Back then, there were no ubiquitous advertising campaigns promoting sports brands and fast food restaurants.
Even Coca-Cola, a brand long associated with the Olympics, was something of a novelty to Finnish crowds in 1952.
"It was the first time Coca-Cola was made available" in Finland, Tikander said.