An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
6 March 2014
In the early 1990s, Bulgaria made a number of bids to host the Winter Olympics. Around the same time, this vast arena popped up beside Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Coincidence? Perhaps – but rumour has it that this unfinished sports hall was built to host the Olympic Games that never came to be.
In this report I’ll take you on a tour through every inch of the vast, abandoned sports venue… from the roof of the arena, down to the service tunnels deep beneath its pitch.
This building is something of an enigma. First of all, it’s massive… easily one of the largest abandonments that I’ve found in such a central, urban location. You would think that a plot of prime real estate, a facility of this size, would struggle to simply vanish.
And yet, that’s exactly what this abandoned sports venue seems to have done. Try as I might, I simply can’t find any information about it. The site goes unmarked on almost every map, with only one exception – where it was vaguely labelled, “Gymnastics Hall.”
Most local people I spoke to had no idea it even existed.
Despite the impressive size of the arena, it has been hidden surprisingly well; set right back from the main road, flanked by trees and long submerged beneath a sea of thick, green vegetation. Each summer, thousands of tourists will pass it by unnoticed as they make their way to holiday resorts along the Black Sea coast.
I asked a local photographer if he knew anything about the place; he had a passion for shooting abandoned buildings, which made him a likely resource.
“Oh, you mean the Olympic place,” he said. I wondered if I did.
When I asked him where he’d heard that from, he couldn’t remember; he’d just heard sometime that the hall had something to do with the Olympics.
A few weeks later I had a similar experience.
“It was built as a swimming pool for the Olympics,” another friend told me with confidence. Looking at the size of the place, at the shallow arenas between the rows of tiered seating, there was just no way this building had been designed as a swimming pool; but still, here was that reference to the Olympics again.
It wasn’t the last time I’d hear it, either – and so I began investigating whether it was possible that these rumours were based in truth; if this abandoned venue had really once been designed to host the Olympic Games.
Bulgaria and The Olympics
Remember that time when Bulgaria hosted the Olympics?
I’m guessing you probably don’t, and with good reason. Despite putting their bid in as potential hosts for the Winter Olympics in 1992, in 1994, and once again in 2014, Bulgaria is yet to be selected for that honour.
That’s not to say, of course, that this Eastern European nation wouldn’t make a fine choice for the event. Bulgaria boasts some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Europe, with a number of well-developed ski resorts within close reach of the capital at Sofia: chiefly those at Bansko and Borovets.
Sofia came second choice in 1992, third place in 1994… but hadn’t even been accepted as a candidate, before Sochi snatched up the 2014 Winter Games. Nevertheless, a 2005 report on Bulgaria Ski detailed just how much the country was prepared to invest into hosting the event: a total of €1.33 million according to Tseko Minev (chairman of the Bulgarian Ski Federation), that would be raised chiefly through commercial ads and sponsorship.
Would it be so hard to imagine then, that this mysterious, unfinished sports hall had once been intended to play a role in the Games?
The building features three gymnastics courts on separate levels, suggesting an ongoing series of games or tournaments. I would estimate the seating capacity at somewhere around one thousand, with an additional VIP booth looking down from the top end of the auditorium. Not only that, but the south side of the building is flanked by three floors of hotel-style accommodation; these unfinished rooms each feature a private south-facing balcony and en-suite washroom. On the ground floor meanwhile, a large series of chambers and corridors could easily have been imagined for a block of showers and changing rooms.
It’s not just the size of this place, but also the design that sets it apart as something special… or at least, something that could have been special. The fine geometry of its construction, the sweeping rows of seats that angle down towards the coastline; everything about the hall seems geared up towards spectacle, and if ever it were finished this would surely have been an impressive sporting venue.
The age of the site looks about right, too. Around the halls, shrubs and vegetation have had time to push their way up through the concrete while the brickwork is beginning to suffer from exposure to the elements. However, it’s not quite so old that the concrete itself is decaying. Woodwork around the building features only surface rot while the structure as a whole remains stable. If I had to guess, I would place it at around 20 years post-abandonment; which would be a good fit for Bulgaria’s Olympic bids in the early 1990s.
There’s still one problem with this theory, however: and that’s location.
In preparation for Bulgaria’s 2014 Olympic bid, Tseko Minev proposed facilities for ice skating and bobsleigh, sledge and curling, to be catered for at an Olympic village on the plains of Sofia’s Mount Vitosha. A further two multifunctional sports halls would be built in the southern part of the capital, while the existing ski villages at Borovets and Bansko would play host to the slope and alpine events.
Why, then, the need for a further sporting venue on the country’s Black Sea coast – a six-hour journey from the rest of the Olympic facilities?
I’ve dug and dug for more information about this venue, searching the web for hours in English, in Bulgarian, even in Russian; but nothing. It’s as if the building never existed.
Rather than theorise any longer then, it only remains for me to offer you the guided tour around this peculiar, abandoned sports hall… and let you decide for yourself whether you’re looking at an Olympic ghost.
A Tour of the Gymnastics Hall
I first visited the building with a Bulgarian friend, on one of the hottest days of last summer. He had been before, and refused to tell me anything about our destination… only that he was confident I’d like it.
He wasn’t wrong.
We came in through the top end of the venue. The building is set back from the road and on a lower level, so there’s literally no clue what you’re walking into – until you turn around the last corner of broken bricks, corrugated tin sheet, and suddenly an unexpected arena falls away beneath your feet.
My first look at the hall, from up here in the broken, windowless VIP booth, took my breath away. It wasn’t just the size of the place, but also its stark, undeniable beauty: the shifting geometric forms made up from a crisscrossing network of whitewashed scaffold poles; the ferns and creepers and ivy that took a hold of those shapes, blurring the mathematical lines into a tangled spectrum of yellows and greens; the Black Sea beyond that, an endless expanse of water, stretched tight beneath a deep, cloudless sky.
Along the south side of the arena, the tiered seating reached a height of three floors. Corridors hidden behind the stalls lead past door after door, the entrances to a series of guest rooms stacked into a concrete block like cells in a prison ward. We headed that way next, dodging deep concrete pits that opened up in the floor, as we skirted around the outer edge of the arena; and into the stairwells and corridors that stretched along its southern side.
On the higher levels, these rooms – presumably once intended to host visiting athletes – were no more than bare, brick shells. The interiors had been left unfinished, mere outlines that hinted at the original design. Out the far side, a series of balconies linked each room to the next; their bare metal frames beginning to grow over, wherever they sagged within reach of the creepers and vines below.
We took the stairs, heading to the next level down.
Behind the arena seating, the next corridor lay in shadows. While the passage above had been bare concrete, this one was scattered with a range of debris… plastic water bottles, broken glass and items of clothing lay strewn from door to door.
Then I spotted the security system. It took me a while to guess the purpose of the device, the exhaust pipe from a car tied upright against a metal beam, and attached to it a broken hubcap fitted with a dirty slice of mirrored glass. I moved around, from side to side, as I checked the image in the mirror – positioned at this angle, it would allow someone inside the empty rooms to glance out at the reflection in the glass, and see immediately down the full length of the corridor.
I couldn’t resist but to have a look inside the rooms – knocking first, just in case they were occupied. Whereas the floor above had been empty and unfinished, this level of rooms featured carpets, furniture, tired old mattresses. A few rooms were sealed against the elements, with plastic sheets pinned up across empty window spaces.
It was clear that some of these rooms had been recently lived in. I didn’t want to pry too far into someone else’s space, but I stayed just long enough to get a feel for the homestead: the dishevelled blankets on the bed, the orthodox icons pinned to the wall; the calendars with their days ticked off in black pen.
Compared to being homeless during the bitter Bulgarian winter, this place was a palace. I guessed it hadn’t been occupied for at least three or four months… the thick layers of dust attested to as much. Perhaps the tenants only return when the snows begin to fall. Either way, they had really hit the jackpot with this location.
After that, our tour took us up. We followed the staircase up to its highest level, where we walked past the row of doors until we came out beyond; stepping onto a flat roof overlooking the Black Sea. At the far end, the platform crumbled away to disintegrate into the bushes beneath. We were careful to watch our step, as we peered out over the arena below.
There was one final level to climb, though. At the end of the row of guest rooms, the exterior wall had crumbled under the elements so that gaping holes appeared here and there in the place of bricks. It made for the perfect climbing wall, and pretty soon we had both made it up on top.
A few moments later we were sat up on the highest point of the arena, overlooking the main road; and regretting that we hadn’t brought any beers along. It was coming on for 40 °C, and climbing over and through the dusty ruins had left me with a dry mouth and parching thirst.
As we made our way back down the wall, onto the staircase and then duking beneath the level of the arena’s steel-framed roof, I spotted a raised walkway hanging amongst the beams. A couple of rusted steps led from one of the higher corridors, reaching the end of the gantry – which then ran out to the centre of the hall before turning, to stretch the length of the building’s roof.
I hopped up onto the rickety beams and crawled carefully out into the centre of the ceiling. The walkway seemed to sway, moving slightly from side to side as I climbed along it. It was a long way to fall – and so I kept my arms spread wide, to catch hold of the crisscrossing bars beneath in case the gantry should give way at any point.
I made it to the end, where, crawling up between the girders of the roof I was rewarded with an excellent view of the coastline. I’ll admit, though: when I did finally make it back the way I had come, planting my feet once again onto hard, unyielding concrete, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief.
From up in the rafters of the hall, I had spotted something below – a cluster of plastic plant pots, arranged into a miniature glade at the centre of the arena. I followed the stairs down, before leaping across from the walkway to the highest row of seating, and then down through the rows and onto the sports ground.
The arena was divided across three levels, each with a drop of roughly eight feet to the next; I climbed down one, jumped another. Barriers around the outside edge rose to roughly waist height, while the levels of seating could be traversed to cut around and down to lower levels. The place was an obstacle course, and I found myself trying out some basic parkour techniques as I navigated my way from one level to the next.
Best of all, the sports hall was surrounded on all sides by a lattice of metal bars; and over the decades of disuse, these had provided the perfect frame for the vegetation that grew up thick on all sides. It gave the impression of a hybrid; not just a human ruin, but also a place of nature. The undergrowth erupted thick and green into the arena from all sides, vines growing all the way to the ceiling in order to encase the arena in a veil of invisibility.
The result was an unlikely combination of space and privacy, the illusion of a forest temple secreted away within the city suburbs.
Granted, this pile of dirt, the haphazard collection of broken plastic bottles filled with soil and tangled vines, wasn’t really much of a garden; but on inspecting the installation, it soon became apparent that whoever had once lived here, had also made attempts at self-sufficiency.
There were herbs and carrot leaves, not much, but perhaps enough to subsidise a life of begging and searching through bins for food. Nearby, where a tangle of brambles burst out through cracks in the concrete, I looked closer to find hops growing wild across the arena floor. Beside that, blackberries sprouted bulbous and juicy from a trailing bush.
Not for the last time, I began thinking about the potential of this place. The huge amounts of space, the insulated rooms, lookout devices, a sea view and the potential for growing all manner of plants and produce… or even to brew beer using freshly harvested hops.
It was tragic, in some ways, to see such a fine and majestic building go to waste – but I found myself in admiration of whatever tramp, gypsy or vagrant had decided to move in here, to build a home and grow their own garden out of the crumbling ruins.
Next we headed underground, beneath the VIP booth that hung from the top end of the arena. Here a passage led into an unfinished corridor, a dark walkway lined with pipes and creeping vines. At the far end, sunlight shone in through cracks between the brickwork, the light fracturing into a glowing tracery of lines that lit the space beneath.
As I wandered through the various different chambers in this section, climbing through holes in walls to reach further passages, I realised that this would probably have been changing rooms. Much of the metal had been stripped away by looters, but the pipes that remained suggested large-scale plumbing, sewage outflows or water pipes that would have fed into shower systems.
Back in the main arena, I climbed into an opening at the side of a court; a tunnel that dropped away and down, into a deep passage running beneath the ground. Similar tunnels ran beneath each level, dark pits lined with pipes and cobwebs. I dropped into the tunnel on the highest level, to crawl out level onto the second… I descended beneath the second, to walk out from a hidden passage onto the third.
Eventually we reached the far end of the arena, where the structure was just about giving up: to fall, vanquished, beneath the oncoming tide of vegetation. This last concrete block looked as though it could once have featured a reception desk, ticket office, cloakrooms… in this decayed state though, the ceiling falling through as roots and vines tore the concrete apart, it was impossible to know for sure.
In one of the back rooms – a shadowy chamber tucked away behind my presumed cloakroom – a brick shaft funnelled light in from high above. I had already seen the broken staircase heading up top, but I decided it’d be much more fun to climb the chimney.
A few minutes later I emerged, pulling myself out onto the roof of the entrance building: the first floor of guest rooms spreading out to my left, the VIP area at the far end, and looking down across the wide expanse of the arena at my feet.
It had taken the two of us perhaps four-and-a-half hours in total, to explore the gymnastics hall in full; from the VIP gallery to the athletes’ rooms, from the rooftops to the shower block and the subterranean tunnels below that. Not only was this one of the largest urban abandonments I’ve seen, but it was also one of the most enjoyable to navigate – thanks to the venue’s many steel ladders and walkways, its climbable walls and vault-worthy barriers.
To return to my initial question: is this abandoned sports hall the Olympic venue that history forgot?
I’ve tried and failed to find evidence in the real world, that either confirms or denies the assertion; only vague talk of an Olympic association, mostly inherited through second- or third-hand rumours.
The venue is certainly large enough to serve such a purpose; it has the space, the seating, the facilities to cater to visiting athletes and important spectators. Clearly the construction was abandoned long before completion, and the apparent age of the building would tie neatly with Bulgaria’s bids for hosting the Olympic Games in the early 1990s.
It seems a likely bet then, though perhaps I’ll never know for sure.