What if Cape Town had won its bid to host the Olympic Games?


What if we could go back in time- 1997 to be precise- and try to imagine the impact of Cape Town’s bid for the 2004 Olympic Games?

What immediately comes to mind would be the strategic land parcels, like Wingfield, Culemborg and others, which would have been developed for the Olympic Games. Today, 15 years later, both sites remain unused and in a appalling state, while the relevant national government departments and parastatals like Transnet drag their feet.

Wingfield military base was the proposed location for the Olympic Park, housing several Olympic venues, including the Olympic Stadium, Aquatic Centre, an arena for Handball, the Archery venue and rowing lake. It would also house thousands of athletes at the Olympic Village, which would straddle the dramatic 2km Olympic rowing course cutting across the site. In a period before the realization of Century City, this project may have seemed risky, but with the proximity to the Century City site, and the potential for connections to the CBD via Acacia Park and Century City stations, a mixed-use precinct with a vibrant community may have blossomed.

No doubt about it: a major venue for athletics and swimming remains one of Cape Town’s achilles heels if it ever intends to bid for multi-sport events.

Culemborg, an important site as a gateway to the CBD was the proposed site for the main Media Village, introducing housing supply for various incomes, on the doorstep of the Central City, while unused old rail repair warehouses closed to Salt River would have been converted into the International Broadcast Centre and Main Press Centre. It would not have been out of place in an area close to the Old Biscuit Mill, Salt River and Woodstock, experiencing their own forms of improvements and urban renewal.

The decision in the late 90’s to construct Olympic bid priority projects, saw many of Cape Town’s venues constructed regardless of the outcome of the bid. Venues like the OR Tambo Hall, Hartleyvale Hockey Stadium, the Bellville Velodrome, Turfhall Softball Stadium and others, have become part of Cape Town’s sporting landscape, each designed with legacy in mind, and with the option for expansion for larger events.

Over the last 15 years, these venues have provided Cape Town with lessons, in light of many challenges faced in maintaining these venues. More recently, the Hartleyvale Stadium roof (due to a lack of regular maintenance) had to be replaced entirely while the Bellville Velodrome is likely to become privately operated as a part of a much bigger precinct, to be known as the Galleria.

Other proposed venues like the Cape Town International Convention centre (only built in 2003), today an economic engine of our region was also a proposed venue, which due to its success is planning its expansion. A major indoor exhibition space was also proposed to to be constructed above the rail lines at the Culelmborg site, while the soon to be demolished Motor City at the Foreshore was meant to host Fencing (the site hosted the 1997 World Fencing Championships), but will soon make way for a 7 city block development Culemborg Quarter.

Transport infrastructure investments included the overhaul of Cape Town Town International Airport, which was accelerated as a result of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, while significant upgrades in the rail system were proposed including the possibility of a light-rail link from the CBD to the Waterfront. Other proposals included:

  • the creation of a single Public Transport authority and the commitment of current public transport operators to the Olympic proposals,
  • the construction of a number of reverse links at strategic points in the rail network to allow the system to operate more efficiently as a series of loops,
  • incremental improvements to the overall rail network, with major rail extensions to Khayelitsha, Blue Downs and the West Coast,
  • a metropolitan wide co-ordinate road traffic signalization scheme to improve the flow of traffic and
  • the creation of a Freeway Ring road, connecting the N1, M5, N2 and R300.

Extract from the Strategic Environmental Assessment of 1997:


The Bid Plan provides a limited but significant opportunity for redressing the physical and spatial imbalances which are characteristic of the apartheid city. The Bid Plan provides for at least 57 training venues (74% of all the training venues) and seven competition venues in disadvantaged areas of the CMR.

Seven priority projects are already underway at Mew Way, Belhar, Philippi East, Langa, Khayelitsha, Turfhall, and Scottsdene. These projects will have injected about R 81 million of investment into previously disadvantaged areas on the Cape Flats and in the Metro South East, even if the Games are not awarded to Cape Town.

Should the Games be awarded to Cape Town, a substantial portion of the R 1 558 million Games-related accelerated expenditure on public transport would go into previously disadvantaged areas of the CMR. Investment in transport infrastructure in the disadvantaged Metro South East could stimulate economic development in this area in the long-term, thus providing more accessible job opportunities. Priority Games-related transport funds of around R250 million will have been spent, regardless of whether or not Cape Town hosts the Games.

While the bulk of competition venue expenditure will occur in the relatively well-off areas of Wingfield and Culemborg, thus reinforcing existing spatial patterns, there are sound reasons for this. The major venues require good access to the CMR, existing transport and service infrastructure, and the ability to maintain expensive facilities in the long term. In addition, it should be noted that urban renewal is likely to occur around both Culemborg and Wingfield, with the adjacent lower income residential areas of Woodstock, Salt River and Factreton benefiting.


Although the Games will be geographically dispersed, with money being spent on transport links and Olympic competition and training venues in disadvantaged areas, the majority of investment will take place in the relatively well-off areas around the two main competition venues at Wingfield and Culemborg. This will serve to reinforce the CMR’s existing spatial patterns. The reasons for concentrating the majority of the Games-related investment in these areas are outlined above. However, while it would be unrealistic to expect the Games to achieve a total restructuring of the CMR, the concentration of the bulk of the spending in the relatively well-off areas is a significant limitation on the extent to which the Games are developmental.

Although substantial investment in transport and multi-purpose community centres will increase access by disadvantaged communities to recreation facilities, it will take a long time before improved transport infrastructure will lead to the changed patterns of economic investment necessary to bring work closer to people’s homes. The structural inequalities of the CMR, with disadvantaged communities living far from their places of work, will thus not be significantly altered by Games-related investments.

An additional concern is that poor people living in the vicinity of the areas which are likely to experience urban renewal may not be able to afford to continue living in these areas, unless effective measures are put in place to prevent this displacement.

Debate is still rife as to whether major events, or this bid in particular, would have brought on the proposed benefits. What is clear, however, is that the investment in an Olympic Games would have played an instrument role in shifting the direction of future development of our city.

See Cape Town’s proposed Olympic venues from the archive here.