Olympic Cities: Urban Legacies from Three Decades of the Olympic Games


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By Melissa Meyer at Future Cape Town

Los Angeles 1984

The first Olympic Games to make a profit since 1932, the LA games changed the way modern Olympics were run. The city made adjustments to existing stadia – constructing only the velodrome and aquatics centre specifically for the Games – helping bring the total profit of operating the Games to $222.7 million, with wider economic impact for Southern California estimated at $3.3 billion. Corporate sponsorship, television rights and ticket sales took the burden off the tax-payer, and 40% of profits from the Games was directed into over 1,000 youth sports organisations and programmes.

Seoul 1988

Initially a controversial choice as a host city, some now argue that the Seoul Games contributed to South Korea’s transition to democracy. Political demonstrations, coupled with the wish not to jeopardise the event with a military dictatorship and riots, contributed to the June 1987 declaration which removed President Chun from power and led to democratic elections in December of that year. Profits from the Games kick-started the flow of business and investment into Seoul and helped boost South Korea’s economy to become the third largest in Asia.

The 1988 Games brought South Korea a previously unheard of sporting legacy; training programmes and sport leagues flourished where there were none previously. Yoon Kang-ro, a Korean sports diplomat, told the Korea Times in 2007: “After hosting the Olympics, the goals became much higher.”

Barcelona 1992

Widely regarded as a model for a successful Olympics, Barcelona used its hosting duties to rebrand and transform the landscape of the city, serving as a catalyst to establish Barcelona as one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.

The Games yielded a $5 million profit and the city benefited from major regeneration efforts. One of the primary areas to benefit from these efforts were Barcelona’s beaches, with around 3.2 kms (2 miles) of beach created at the time of the Games and another 1.6 kms (1 mile) added since 1992. This provided major impetus for the city’s subsequent tourism boost. The city also constructed a new port which, aside from providing some of the most photogenic Olympic venues, helped boost Barcelona’s reputation as a centre of commerce.

Atlanta 1996

Atlanta enjoys one of the strongest Olympic legacies of modern times, despite a chaotic Games which suffered from transport problems, criticism for commercialisation and a fatal pipe bomb. Heavy sponsorship of Atlanta’s 1996 Games meant the city broke even and was left without large debts. The two main stadia constructed for the event transitioned well, having been designed with after-use in mind, and are now home to the city’s baseball and football teams.

Atlanta’s inner-city benefitted most from the legacy. The Centennial Olympic Park was the centerpiece of the downtown revitalisation, attracting a number of high rises and museums along its periphery. At the time of construction, the Park was the largest urban green space to be created in the U.S. in 25 years, and today attracts millions of visitors annually. 20 percent of the tax generated from the Games was channeled into regeneration of the city’s poorer areas.

Sydney 2000

Despite hosting a successful Games, Sydney’s legacy is relatively minimal. The budget almost tripled before the Games had even begun, and Sydney paid an even bigger price post-Games, with former chief planner for the Sydney Games, Sue Holliday, stating that the host city should have focused more on its legacy program.

Sydney’s Olympic Park formed the centerpiece of the promise to deliver a ‘Green Games’. 160 hectares of degraded land was transformed into an environmentally-friendly park which along with its surrounding features now totals around 640 hectares – one of the largest urban parks in Australia. Despite this, the Park sat unused until 2005 until a more long-term plan was implemented.

Athens 2004

Despite a successful event, the Grecian capital suffered from a Games that ran badly over budget. A failure to capitalise on the modernisation momentum started by the Games means that Athens’ Olympic infrastructure is now largely unused. Adding to this, promised parks were never delivered and new transportation infrastructure caused problems, including flooding and increased traffic. The government also chose to finance Olympic venues from the public investment budget, without a long-term strategy for post-Games use.

One positive legacy of the 2004 Games is the Athens International Airport, which was expanded and modernised and now receives a higher share of European air traffic. The city’s subway system also benefitted through the construction of a two-line, 28 station system over 27 kms.

Beijing 2008

Despite being the most expensive Games in history, Beijing’s Games did not leave the country in debt. With enough capital to fund the developments, Beijing benefitted from a new airport terminal, subways and highways, and improved public spaces, without crippling debt. However, while some facilities have been utilized after the Games, others – notably the landmark Bird’s Nest Stadium – have remained largely unused.

Following the announcement of Beijing as the 2008 host city, health concerns were raised concerning the poor quality of Beijing air. A number of athletes expressed concerns about competing, forcing Beijing to implement drastic measures, including temporary shut-down or relocation of factories, banning around 300,000 heavily polluting vehicles, and forcing chemical plants and power stations to reduce emissions by 30 percent.

The most drastic measure saw half of Beijing’s cars prohibited from the city’s roads a month ahead of the Games. Cars with odd number plates were restricted on odd days and even cars on even days. The result of these measures was a 47 percent reduction in carbon dioxide levels. Although most of these policies proved to be temporary, the 2008 preparations proved that large cities can improve urban air quality if motivated.

Images courtesy of Mr LittlehandJustin OrnellasSean MacEnteeeschipulmjog*Metro Centric, andRichard Weil on flickr