What do we get from the Olympics, anyway?

Last month, it was announced that Budapest would withdraw its bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, following a successful local campaign to force a referendum on the city’s bid. Budapest’s withdraw from consideration leaves Paris and Los Angeles as the only remaining contenders for the 2024 Games.

This might prove to be a more significant development for the Olympics themselves than for Budapest. There have not been so few cities contending to host the Summer Olympics since 1981, when only two cities submitted bids to host the 1988 Olympics. The Winter Olympics has been on a similar track recently, with the last selection process (for the 2022 Games) likewise coming down to only two cities.

Why is this significant? Because the last time the Olympics saw so few cities bidding to host the games, the Games were experiencing a historic period of difficulty. The 1972 Munich Games were overshadowed by a high-profile terrorist attack, while the 1976 Montreal Games became infamous for its poor planning, questionable legacy, and cost overruns that reached levels no other Olympic games has even come close to reaching. At the time, the skyrocketing costs of the games coupled with the security risks were leading many cities to question the value of hosting the Olympics.

Today, the astronomically high cost of the games is resulting in fewer and fewer cities willing to host the Olympics. Coincidentally, this has happened amidst a worldwide trend of inwardly-focused, nationalistic politics that often sees little reason to expend money on a global “mega” event to attract outsiders. But more likely it has to do with the evident cronyism and mass commercialism that underlines the Olympics, where insane amounts of money move behind the scenes while the cities that host the Olympics expend millions of taxpayer dollars that could have gone towards more pressing needs. While the games are in session, the security and surveillance apparatuses are so strict and all-encompassing that normal day-to-day life comes to an abrupt halt. And when it’s all over, the cities that host the games are often left with giant, underutilized facilities and underwhelming economic benefits, if not outright losses.

The last fifteen years alone have seen several examples of the Olympics leaving behind tainted legacies. Athens 2004 is widely regarded as a mistake that contributed (if only in a small way) to the Greek debt crisis, with many of its venues now sitting abandoned and crumbling away. Some of the venues from Beijing 2008, including the spectacular Olympic Stadium built specifically for the games, have seen little use since the Olympics left. Sochi 2014 was the most expensive Winter Games to date, where the massive infrastructure built for the games caused irreparable damage to the natural landscape and likely will see little use in the near future, if ever. And Rio 2016 left behind an ugly political legacy of corruption, massive public debt, and development that will primarily benefit the city’s upper classes. Even relatively successful games like London 2012 faced serious questions about the long-term impact of the games, with a massive new stadium that struggled to find a tenant and a construction boom that is gentrifying the surrounding area, pricing out many nearby residents.

Cities have long had to deal with the after affects of hosting such large-scale events, whether it be the Olympics or major expositions such as the world’s fair. Sometimes these events leave something positive behind; for instance, Paris and Seattle both gained landmarks that have become enduring icons of their respective cities. The Panama-California Exposition of 1915 left San Diego with the beautifully developed Balboa Park. A tiny sliver of the grounds for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco survives as the Palace of Fine Arts. And the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition gave Chicago a green space that would become the handsome Jackson Park. But for all these positive examples, there are many more questionable ones. Past the Space Needle, the grounds for the 1962 World’s Fair are eerily quiet and underused today. The same is doubly true of desolate Flushing Meadows, site of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, or the massive fairgrounds built for Seville’s Expo ’92. The majority of the grounds used for San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition aren’t evident today; the landfill it was built on became an admittedly very lovely neighborhood that has the minor drawback of being particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.

On a basic level, event infrastructure is typically incongruous with your normal day-to-day infrastructure, for the simple reason that events are fleeting but draw huge numbers of people. So the infrastructure required to handle these events needs to accommodate gigantic crowds but then will go underutilized once the event is over. Of course, no one who advocates for hosting these mega-events wants to think of it that way; they believe the stadiums built for the Olympics will surely host new sports teams after the games, and that the event infrastructure will undoubtedly support a growing tourist economy and future events certain to come. This line of thinking is attractive in post-industrial cities, and manifests itself in other ways: we have an entire convention and event industry that tells civic leaders to adapt to the new paradigm by investing in splashy convention facilities in places almost no one is interested in visiting, or stadiums for sports teams that will leave as soon as some other sap offers a better deal.

What’s frustrating for me personally is that I actually really enjoy the Olympics. I enjoy watching them on TV, and I enjoy reading about their history (incidentally, if anyone else is interested in the history of the Olympics, particularly in regards to their relation to urban planning, I highly recommend John and Margaret Gold’s excellent book Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning, and the World’s Games). I love the spectacle of the games, from the torch relay (a tradition which was created by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin games as a way of establishing a connection between the European empires of old and their modern Third Reich) to the opening ceremonies (which exist solely to make work for the host nation’s worst dramatic and visual artists) to the athletic events themselves (the coverage of which, if you live in the United States, constantly gets interrupted by NBC’s insufferably saccharine profiles of American athletes). For all the mass commercialism and obvious problems surrounding the games, there’s still something comforting in the thought that people all over the world are partaking in the same event.

But the Olympics has gotten too expensive for its own good, too obsessed with making money, and too accustomed to civic leaders kissing their rings—their five colored rings. It has become a games for the elite, even while it is clad in populist language and nationalist pride. For decades, the Olympics has held out the promise of prestige for any city that can host the games. But since the Barcelona 1992 games, cities have also looked for ways to link urban planning goals to hosting the games; turning run-down industrial areas into parkland or stadium complexes, building new rail lines and transit links, or creating Olympic Villages that can later be converted to new housing units. But when infrastructure is built specifically for the Olympics, it tends to be difficult to integrate into the greater cityscape afterward, hence the typical post-Olympic landscape: empty sports complexes on the edge of town, underutilized rapid transit infrastructure, aging facilities built for a booming tourism and event industry that somehow fails to materialize.

The best Olympic legacies are those where the games had to be molded to suit the local conditions, rather than the other way around. In this regard, both the Paris and Los Angeles bids are slightly better crafted than most, if only from a strictly urban planning perspective: both bids rely mostly on existing venues and transportation infrastructure that’s either completed or already in the works. But even in the case of these “modest” bids, the social impact of the games can still be vast and destructive: pricing out existing residents through accelerated development (as we’ve seen in London), commercialism that primarily benefits mega-sponsors over the local community, and an oppressive police presence committed to cracking down on anything that would soil the image projected to the world of a clean, safe, happy city that’s open for business.

Interestingly, if Los Angeles secures the 2024 games, it could be the third time that the city has boosted the Olympics’ fortunes in otherwise troubled times. In 1932, L.A. managed to pull off hosting the games despite the economic troubles of the Great Depression by making it a very modest affair, even by the standards of the time: the games took place almost entirely in existing venues and very little was expended on the surrounding celebrations in order to keep costs down. In 1984, with the Olympics trying to live down the sordid legacy of the 1976 Montreal games, L.A.’s answer was a mixture of using mostly existing venues and adopting corporate sponsorship, and the result was the most financially successful Olympics games in modern history. These “capitalist games” (as opposed to the 1980 Moscow games, using the Cold War rhetoric of the era) created the blueprint that every Olympic city afterwards would look to, marrying the lofty rhetoric the Olympics has always held with mass commercialism and an oppressive police force that made sure the city stuck to the script. Should L.A. manage to repeat this performance in 2024, the Olympics would be granted another example of how to do it “right” when cities around the world are beginning to doubt.

Frankly, the Olympics need to die. Or more specifically, they need to become something we won’t recognize. The Olympics has presented itself to civic leaders as a city-defining historic event, but instead it should be treated more as a big party, one that doesn’t require much beyond what the host already has to offer—if it does, it’s asking too much. For its sake—and all of ours—the Olympics must lose its grandeur and become a humbler undertaking, rededicated to that original idea of cultural exchange through friendly athletic competition. And it may not have a choice in the matter, because cities are beginning to learn that the lofty promises of hosting the Olympics aren’t being realized.

Update, May 9th, 2017: This week, the first signs of a resistance movement to the Olympics in Los Angeles emerged: NOlympics LA, which seems to be looking to the Budapest case (among others) as an example to follow. I recommend reading the material on their site, particularly the stuff regarding the sordid underbelly of the “successful” 1984 Games. This will be an interesting movement to follow.

2 thoughts on “What do we get from the Olympics, anyway?”

  1. Concerning the Olympics, I believe Salt Lake City did it relatively right in (I believe) 2002. Or am I full of it? If they did it right, maybe you could add it into your excellent article. If they didn’t, I’m curious to hear what they screwed up.

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    1. I agree, Salt Lake City did it relatively well (by the standards of modern Olympics, that is). The stadium they used for their opening ceremonies was literally just their college football stadium, albeit after a major renovation. The 2002 Olympics also provided Salt Lake the initial impetus to build a light rail system, which they’ve continued to expand upon long after the Olympics.

      Of course, the Winter Games are a different beast than the Summer ones in that they’re considerably smaller, which makes them quite a bit less ungainly and costly.

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