A Swede, a Somali and a Salvadorian Walk into a Bar …

August 5, 2016 / Jeff Keas

How global competition brings fans together and celebrates their differences

This article was first featured on iSportConnect.

The streets of Rio are alive with international athletes and adoring fans. Over the next several weeks of Olympic and Paralympic competition, anthems will ring out, gold medals will be bitten by victorious competitors and citizens of the world will share common ground.

As a global design practice, we’re exposed to all the wonderfully unique traits of fans from every corner of the world. We’ve worked and built relationships within cultures spanning six continents. Each one of those communities calls a distinct heritage their own, one formed by the sum of generational experiences. It’s always a thrill to learn, understand and design for a new community.

Continents don’t collide in the sports world every day, so we relish the moments when a rugby aficionado from France rubs elbows with a badminton diehard from Malaysia. Fans and their quirks are direct reflections of the cultures they call home. If you look closely, both their similarities and differences come into sharp focus.

The original Olympics is widely-believed to have first taken place in 776 BCE. It was exclusively a Greek affair in the beginning, expanding slightly to include their new Roman overlords later. Even the first incarnation of the modern day version of the Games in 1896 counted only three participating countries from outside of Europe. Needless to say, the sporting world felt much smaller back then.

Flash forward to today’s modern world and globalization is the norm. A record 206 countries including, first-timers Kosovo and South Sudan, are set to participate in Rio. We’ve worked on a total of 13 Olympic and Paralympic Games over the years – and the thrill of seeing so many different cultures in one place at one time never fades.

“After the long work of planning is done and the host country opens its doors, we see something happen every time,” says Jerry Anderson, a Populous founder with more than three decades of experience designing global events including 12 Olympic and Paralympic Games. “Regardless of what else is happening in the world, when it’s Olympics season the fans bring with them a tremendous amount of goodwill.”


Intense rivalries do exist, but differences are more often celebrated than stressed. By way of example, chanting is a staple of the ‘beautiful game’ and adds to the experience for all. When Australian fans crafted one specifically for the 2000 Sydney Games, it didn’t take long for “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” and its “Oi, Oi, Oi!” echo to become a guilty pleasure for fans of all stripes.

Maybe the good vibes are born from the realization of just how easily we can sway and be swayed by those playing oceans away. My colleague Bruce Miller recently wrote about European soccer culture’s influence on the sport’s fan experience in the United States. The cultural exchange reverses with every pour of a U.S.-inspired craft beer in a European pub.

Of course, some traditions spread a little too far and too quickly for some fans’ tastes. Remember how soccer matches across the world were full of the buzzing monotone of Vuvuzela horns after the 2010 World Cup highlighted the South African tradition? Before the instrument was banned in many countries it was a global fascination during the tournament.

Other traditions simply don’t travel. Take tailgating in the United States; a car-centric culture and wide open geography results in a sea of vehicles and smoking grills before American football games in the fall. Between traveling to and from the game, setting up, cooking and the game itself, the games can be all-day affairs. West Indies cricket match spectators, by contrast, typically bring their own cuisine into the venue.

The makeup of a sport sometimes has just as much to do with the behavior of fans as its geography. Sports that feature fewer scoring opportunities often result in more emphasis on the socializing aspects of gameday. It’s not uncommon for American baseball fans, especially younger generations, to routinely leave their seats during games for leisurely strolls and side adventures with friends. New experiences like The Rooftop at Coors Field cater to this desire.

2014 SEP 16: The Colorado Rockies vs the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field in Denver, CO. Photo: Evert Nelson/Clarkson Creative

Soccer offers even fewer scoring chances. In countries like Brazil, which can throw a party with the best of them, this historically has translated to a gameday experience bordering on ecstasy. The subtle influence of stadium design was seen when Brazilian soccer stadiums built early in the 20th century were renovated at the turn of the century and geared toward a less frenetic and more family-friendly fan experience. It took fanatics some time to adjust to the new environment.

Still, culture defines architecture more than vice versa. Shaun Gallagher, a Populous principal based in Brisbane, has worked on three of the last four Olympic Games and most recently on the 2014 Asian Games. He notes the most successful architects need a certain measure of humility to realize it’s often less about the architecture and more about the experience.

“Fans often spend far more time socializing away from the venue than they do at the event, which is part of the ritual,” says Shaun. “As designers we must understand this fact and respect it.”

Christ the Redeemer | Credit: Mark Goble

Nowhere is that ritual on fuller display than the Olympic Games. The real beauty of the event’s design lies in the space between each smaller event, when spectators roam and journeys intersect. Populous Associate Soaad Islam worked extensively on the London 2012 Games and saw this behavior up close.

“The most challenging piece was to understand and choreograph all the thousands of moving elements into one organized celebration,” says Soaad.

To solve the puzzle our team always focuses on showcasing the host city and country. What landmarks can facilities and venues highlight to visitors and the television audience? In 2012 that meant incorporating quintessential London landmarks like Greenwich Park and Horse Guards Parade. In Rio it means positioning for jaw-dropping landmarks like the Christ the Redeemer statue and Copacabana beach.

Regardless of the cultural differences between those in attendance, the lasting images of every Olympics tends to be one of triumph, heartbreak and the sportsmanship that bridges them both. We may be centuries removed from an all-Greek Olympics, but the modern day version thankfully still makes the world feel a little more tightly-knit.

Meet the author

Jeff Keas

Senior Event Architect, Senior Principal / Denver


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