Athletic Complex transformed into debate site

The Athletic Complex has been the site of many thrilling sports contests, but Oct. 2, it housed a different kind of matchup.

As Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin squared off during the 2008 vice presidential debate, a global audience looked on, and the Athletic Complex’s Field House served as a studio space suited for broadcasting this event around the world.

By Oct. 1, the stage was completed, the lights were ready, the sound was checked, and the transformation of the Field House into a television studio was complete.

Turning a gymnasium into a studio-quality stage area in one week is no small task. Many University groups — the chancellor’s office, facilities, maintenance, capital projects, athletics and others — as well as outside companies worked together to construct a debate stage, carpet the area, add seats, hang drapery, build six network camera platforms and meet various technical requirements.

After months of planning, the stage construction began Sept. 24 and was completed Sept. 29, after which the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) implemented its studio design, adding the set, sound and lighting. The rapid transformation of the Field House was accomplished by more than 50 planners and more than 100 workers.

WUSTL has hosted three presidential debates in the past — in 1992, 2000 and 2004 and prepared for one in 1996 that was canceled — and this experience certainly played into this year’s planning.

“After you’ve done it that many times, you start to understand the process fairly well,” said Steve Rackers, manager of capital projects and records in the Facilities Planning Office, “so even though it’s chaotic, you start to understand the order of the chaos.”

One important planning aspect is keeping the temperature just right for the candidates. As the first-ever televised presidential debate — between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 — illustrated, appearance can be crucial. The 1960 debate is remembered for Nixon looking pale and exhausted, compared with Kennedy’s tanned and confident appearance.

Today, such media considerations are commonplace in politics, and neither candidate could afford to appear uncomfortable or be seen sweating during a debate. Two additional air ducts were constructed over the stage, the open archways above the seating area was closed off to seal the temperatures in, and the area was precooled.

“We run it down into the low 60s,” Rackers said, “and you get all the physical space as a holder of the cooler temperature, so when the heatload comes in — all the people and all the lights create a tremendous heatload — it will remain under 65 degrees.”

Another consideration is acoustics. Sound typically reverberates in the gymnasium, but the carpet and drapes, aside from adding a touch of elegance, helped absorb the sound. The air ducts also were tweaked and tested so there was no noise.

Additionally, the University ensured that each campaign received the same amount of space as the other, said John Schael, director of athletics and member of the Debate Steering Committee.

“Each candidate was set up in the two basketball coaches’ offices that are on opposite sides of the stage,” Schael said. “The offices, as well as the campaign workspace and holding rooms, are identical in square footage.”

During the construction, the hallways of the Athletic Complex were strewn with wiring, pipes and drapes, computer equipment, and office chairs and tables. Inside the stage area, two small mobile cranes were used to help install the additional cooling vents and much of the drapery.

The CPD arrived at 6 a.m. Sept. 29 from the University of Mississippi with the set that had been used for the presidential debate the Friday before. By the afternoon of Sept. 30, the set was nearly complete, the lighting rigs — with more than 100 studio lights — were up, and the moderator’s desk and lecterns were in place.

That evening, the CPD installed the last elements of the semicircular stage set, including lit panels behind each candidate that featured wording from the Declaration of Independence, which gave the stage a more modern look than in years past. The overall set design remained simple to keep viewers’ focus on the candidates, not the backdrop.

The afternoons of Oct. 1 and 2 were used for checks, walkthroughs and any last-minute tweaks before the Oct. 2 evening’s debate.

Peter Eyre, senior adviser for the CPD, said, “The people at Washington University are great, the school always goes above and beyond to make sure the debate goes smoothly, and the facilities here are ideally suited for hosting debates, so you can’t ask for anything more.”

Beyond transforming the debate venue itself, two other gyms in the Athletic Complex were converted in order to house the media.

The Recreational Gym became both the Media Filing Center (containing approximately 220 tables with electrical and communications outlets) and “Spin Alley,” where pundits offered their views of the debate immediately afterwards.

Francis Gym, site of the 1904 Olympics, also offered workspaces to C-SPAN and to various affiliate network and television stations by using drapery to separate each area.

In addition, office space and classrooms throughout the building were temporarily designated to the CPD and to five major networks. Outside, 45 exterior live stand-up positions were constructed for TV interviews.

A unique factor in this year’s vice presidential debate was the public and media’s fascination with Palin, and approximately 3,100 media members were credentialed for the debate.

The influx of media required that additional trucks and generators be parked on the practice field, and more than three miles of network cabling was run to accommodate wireless devices.

Schael praised the multifaceted effort of the entire University community in preparing for such an event.

“When it comes to hosting debates, Washington University has the ingredients of a championship team — experience, talent, teamwork, leadership and a tradition that has an elevating power of its own,” he said.