The origination of the stadium dates back to VIII Century BC around a rudimentary athletics track shaped as an elongated “U”. Starting and finish line were at the two ends and there was only one track which was 192 m long and 32 m wide. There was a stone stand with two separate entrances for judges and for spectators, who could the watch the athletes’ efforts and cheer them throughout the competition, was built along the track.
An elongated-U-shaped stand ran along the three sides of the track, two rectilinear and one bended. Olympia stadium, which was extended as the Games became popular in Greece in ancient times, which welcomed around 45,000 spectators.
As sport became more popular, stadia were built in many Greek towns alongside with hippodromes (an arena used for equestrian or other sporting events). These had similar characteristics and dimensions but they were used for horse and chariot racings.
These kinds of sports facilities soon started to play key roles within the “polis”(a city-state in ancient Greece). There are still traces of these structures in Delphi, Ephesus and most of all in Athens, where in 331 BC Panathenaic stadium was built. It was then rebuilt for the first modern Olympic Games of 1896 and was recently renovated for the Olympic Games of Athens 2004.
If we look from the architectural viewpoint, the structure of the stadium is the meeting point between the two great typological models of the Greek and Roman world, which are also public facilities but used for performances: theatre and amphitheatre. The former, developed in Greece during VI century BC while amphitheatre were built in Rome from first century BC. Epidaurus theatre, giving onto Peloponnesus Mountains, and the Hellenistic Taormina theatre, giving onto Etna, is famous examples.
The amphitheatre’s central area was for the cruel gladiators’ fights or for naumachia. Arles amphitheatre, Verona Arena and of course Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, are the most important and best preserved examples.
In parallel with the transition from theatre to amphitheatre, the tradition of sports facilities moved from Greece to the Roman world with the birth of circus, the typological evolution (the study or systematic classification of types that have characteristics or traits in common) of the prototypes of stadium and of hippodrome, between the II and the I century BC.
The Latin word circus, which comes from the Greek word kirkos, “circle, ring,” referred to a circular or oval area enclosed by rows of seats for spectators. In the center ring, so to speak, was held a variety of events, including chariot races and gladiatorial combats, spectacles in which bloodshed and brutality were not uncommon.
The circus was concerned with sports relating to horse riding and drew the elongate “U” shape from the previous models but it differed from them as its fourth side was closed by buildings. Spectators’ tiers were arranged on a natural slope and their lower part was made of stone. Upper tiers were built at a certain height and were usually made of wood. The sometimes monumental buildings on the fourth side included the horses’ starting stalls marking the boundary of a further side of the track. The course was continuous because of which races on more laps could therefore take place.
Circuses were usually built around the walls and adjacent to the imperial palace so that the emperor and his court can have direct access. Due to their positions, these large open spaces were sometimes used for some more public activities as well, thus turning into an integral part of the city life.
Circus Maximums, built in the first century BC in Roma, is the best-known example of this kind of architecture. Its main characteristics were its large dimensions and its capacity. It was over 600 m long and 200 m wide which could accommodate about 200,000 spectators. The stands covered three levels, behind which there was an external façade with three superimposed rows. The lowest row was provided with large arcades used by the spectators reaching the facility and streaming out of it.
One of the best preserved circuses is the Circus of Maxentius in Roma, and Constantinople Circus is another famous example. It was built in the IV century AD together with the other large buildings of the new capital of the Roman Empire. However by the time it was built circuses were no more serving their original purpose, that is hosting equestrian events, but they were rather used for other public activities.
During the IV century AD, we see the importance of sports practice was slowly declining with the ban on the circus charioteers, which unavoidably affected the development of sports facilities and thus speeding up the conversion of circuses into non-sports public facilities.
Sports practice was revived during the Renaissance when running events and equestrian events (horse-riding) were reintroduced. However they did not take place in specific facilities, but usually in areas serving other purposes, in large open spaces or in the squares, which were often provided with wooden tiers and small temporary roofs for the most important spectators.
Piazza Del Campo in Siena and its Palio horse race are the most important case that is still popular nowadays, while in Firenze in Piazza Santa Croce the forerunners of modern football used to play in teams made up of 27 members each without any rule, but the one to throw the ball into the goal of the opposite team.
A few centuries later during the second half of the Nineteenth Century SPORTS were properly defined with the setting up of the clubs and sports federations. The enthusiasm for the new sports, football and rugby in particular, quickly grew in Great Britain, where in the city’s population had dramatically grown due to the urbanization process resulting from the Industrial Revolution which made the people soon felt the need to build new facilities that could welcome a high number of fans.
One important development took place in the same year which was the revival of the Olympic Games, proposed in 1894 by the French baron Pierre de Coubertin. This sanctioned the final importance of sport in the modern age and symbolically marked the start of a new age of stadia.
Modern Olympic Games were inspired by Greece. The Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, which was brought to light by the excavations dating back to the Eighteenth century and which, was rebuilt keeping its elongated “U” shape prior to the first Games held in 1896.
The Greek and Roman style of architecture which was used in sports facilities was rediscovered in the Neoclassical age and it was used as an inspiration for the first modern stadia, triggering off an evolutionary process which started from Great Britain at the end of the Nineteenth century and still under way, spread in all continents in parallel with technological innovations and often linked with Olympic Games and Football World Cups.
First-generation stadia were like huge hotchpotches whose purpose was basically to host a large amount of spectators in an age when there was no television and sports events could be watched just live. During the early years, stadiums were facilities with no architectural value, uncomfortable and the provision of facilities was basic. Tiers were made of concrete or just with the arrangement of embankments standing and often crammed into the stands, with the exception of some small seating stand, sometimes also provided with a small roof for the most important spectators. Their extension was usually disorderly and non-homogeneous, in order to satisfy the increasing demand for seating areas by the spectators.
Then the eighties ended with a series of catastrophic events in the UK stadia: fire of wooden stands, the escalation of the violent phenomenon of hooligans and the disaster at Sheffield Hillsborough Stadium, caused in April 1989 by an overcrowded stand. These events killed hundreds of people and induced us to consider spectators’ safety. As a consequence, these facilities which were made more accessible, safe and comfortable drew more diversified and heterogeneous spectators.
Moreover the stadia were not upgraded just to be in accordance with the new standards, but the process gave the opportunity to introduce business activities in stadia, which were soon also sponsored. Merchandising, museums, guided tours, boxes and restaurants become popular in stadia together with recreational and leisure areas, which ensued from a new way to manage the facility, regarded as a public area used not for the mere sports event and open seven days a week.
In the last few years stadium architecture has changed drastically. They are now the centres of attraction as classified by UEFA, among the cities bidding to host the major international sports events. Latest-generation stadia are designed by people who are well aware of this and therefore they feature high-quality architectural and technological systems.