The Olympic Games leave behind an indelible mark on any host city, and even those cities that have just bid for the Games. In most host cities, this mark is a combination of good and bad legacies tied into the city’s fabric and future. In some former Olympic host cities, more bad than good. But no one story defines the journey an Olympic host city takes in bidding for, planning, hosting and living in the aftermath of the Games.
Some cities benefit simply from exposure during the bid process. Many would struggle to argue against Cape Town’s bid for the 2004 Olympic Games in 1997, which, coming at a time when the city was still relatively unknown, helped catapult it into the international limelight. Today, the city is a tourism jewel of South Africa and Africa. The narrative communicated to the world was that of a city embracing its new and young democracy, intent on using the Olympic Games as part of the physical, social and economic transformation that was needed at the time.
For a city like Barcelona – darling of the Olympic-legacy-textbooks – the journey towards regeneration and transformation of the urban fabric was part of a process started well before the Olympic bid. Decisions made by city leaders and the government in the late 70’s were instrumental in the decision to bid for the Games, with the event becoming an accelerant for the change many were hoping would come. The Olympic Games were overlapped onto Barcelona’s vision for the city, and not vice versa.
Despite being criticized in the media for excessive commercial advertising (resulting in the nickname ’the Coca-Cola games’) and experiencing major transport issues during the Games, Atlanta showed good forward thinking in parts of its vision. The Olympic Stadium was always intended to host baseball, so the venue was temporarily adapted to host athletics during the Games. Its awkward form, with a baseball shaped end to one part of the stadium, was perhaps not the most beautiful Olympic venue, but it did the job and left the city without an 80,000 seat white elephant venue. The Aquatic Centre, and many other venues, still enjoy regular use in a city that is not necessarily synonymous with a positive Olympic legacy.
Athens, on the other hand, stands as a symbol for the negative impact of poor planning and the construction of Games venues with no longer term purpose. Despite these failings, the Games itself ran smoothly, contrary to doom and gloom predictions, and it presented Athens with an opportunity to upgrade public transport and invest in new infrastructure, albeit at a great cost.
Beijing may have used the Games as a ‘coming out party’ to the world, but it also gave the host an opportunity to overhaul its public transport system and deal with the impacts of urbanization in a constantly-growing city. Like Athens, Beijing is facing major issues finding viable uses for Olympic venues, including the awe-inspiring Bird’s Nest Stadium, and is struggling to regain control of air pollution, which it drastically reduced before the Games.
Today, London is preparing for the opening ceremony of its third Olympic Games; in 2005, the city had the clarity of vision to use the Games to generate a lasting urban legacy. Alongside the use of iconic existing venues such as Lords, the O2, Wembley Stadium and Wimbledon, London made the decision to convert an abandoned and contaminated 250 hectare site in one of the most deprived parts of the city into the Olympic Park. Already, some say the legacy impact will only be felt in the coming decades, as the park and surrounding communities become integrated into the broader city and urban fabric.
But perhaps the most compelling Olympic narrative may only come in four years when Rio de Janeiro stages the 2016 Olympic Games just 2 years after hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It is the first time a city in South America is hosting the Games, and the impact on this developing city will be immense. While Rio is undergoing a transformation on a scale perhaps last seen before the Barcelona games of 1992, the real legacy could be in the areas of housing and public transport. Unlike other host cities, Rio lacks the required number of hotel rooms (40,000 to be exact) to meet IOC requirements, and has instead decided to build an Olympic Village and a series of media villages in different zones of the city, rather than new hotels. This will offer an unprecedented Olympic housing legacy, and is a fantastic example of a city choosing the legacy it needs.
Each story, each vision, and each motivation for wanting to host the Olympic Games is different, but the real victors are host cities that decided on the legacy they wanted from the outset, and were reasonable in their expectations of the benefits the event could bring. In those cities, Day 18 onwards comes as no surprise.
Join This Big City and Future Cape Town for our next #CityTalk as we discuss and debate the journeys of past, present and future Olympic Cities, and crowdsource ideas for solutions to the challenges of hosting one of the word’s largest events. The discussion happens on July 30th at 7PM BST/8PM CEST+SAST/2PM EDT. For more information on how #citytalk works, click here.