Jackpot or Burden?

Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist and author
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Just like their athletes, countries too train hard and compete for the right to host the Olympic Games. But winning the bid is only half the battle. Not many host cities have reaped the promised long-term benefits of hosting this greatest of all carnivals. Rio’s no stranger to hosting carnivals. Still, here are a few lessons it can learn from some of the previous Olympic hosts.

It is a commonly held view that the toughest Olympic event is the marathon… (However) there is another Olympic event which makes the marathon look gentle. It has only a handful of competitors, lasts many years, is fought out in every continent of the world, and ends with the presentation of just one medal” —Robert Scott, Chairman of the Manchester 2000 British Olympic bid.

Evidently, Scott was referring to the enormously competitive bidding process for the summer Olympic Games. The drama witnessed in Copenhagen on 2 October is evidence that Scott is spot on in his assessment. From state heads to film and sports celebrities, Copenhagen had them all trying to woo the meagre 115 voters who helped choose Rio de Janeiro as the host city of the 2016 Olympic Games.

In trying to achieve the Olympic dream, no stone was left unturned. For example, on the night of 1 October, I received a frantic phone call from a leading Olympic journalist asking why our very own Randhir Singh had turned down a private meeting with the US First Lady, Michelle Obama. In the plus 300-page file on Randhir Singh, usual practice at the time of bidding, he was identified as an IOC President Samaranch supporter. At the same time Chicago was confident that once Madrid was out of the race (which didn’t happen), Singh’s vote would go to them.

For upwardly mobile cities, the hosting of the summer Olympic Games represents the ultimate marketing initiative, where state leaders stake a claim to the ‘premier division of the global urban hierarchy’. The bidding spectacle is a mixture of sporting genius, national posturing, organisational giantism and most significantly perhaps, the greatest global demonstration of the gap between haves and have-nots. At a time of economic slump, the bids of the four candidate cities totalled approximately $60 billion.

Interestingly, this gap, as Brian Stoddart argues, “is not just economic, as in the difference between countries that can afford the now-mandatory high-tech cycles and streamlined swimming suits good for only two or three races. There is also a cultural difference as determined by an IOC choice of disciplines, driven as much by commerce as sport. It is unthinkable, for example, that any Muslim country would send representatives to women’s beach volleyball where skimpy bikinis are obligatory.”

Using sport to fast-track urban development is a well established phenomenon, with hosting of mega sports events being looked upon as prestige projects, essential for urban revitalisation. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, with a profit of £215 million in 1984, and the Barcelona Games in 1992, which resulted in unprecedented urban regeneration, are two such instances. Yet, such initiatives have more often than not ended up all wrong, as had happened in Montreal in 1976 or more recently in Sydney at the turn of the millennium. For example, the slogan, ‘We want bread not circuses’, raised by Toronto inhabitants, had derailed the city’s Olympic bid in 1996. With the example of Montreal before them, a sporting spectacle which resulted in a loss of £692 million, the city’s inhabitants questioned the prudence behind the mounting of an Olympic bid.

And four years prior to Montreal, Munich had sustained a loss of £178 million hosting the summer Olympic Games.

The huge risks associated with hosting the Games raise a series of questions. Do mega sports events contribute significantly to host city’s development and provide an opportunity for urban regeneration? Will Beijing, for example, having spent a mammoth $42 billion, benefit from hosting the Games in the long run? At a time of economic recession how will Chicago come to terms with its spend of $50 million in trying to win the rights to host the 2016 Games, and finally, do hallmark sports events also offer an opportunity for social and political mobilisation?There’s little doubt that once most mega events are over, organisers are faced with questions like: ‘What will happen to the newly constructed stadiums in future?’, ‘Will the money spent turn out prudent investments in the end?’ or ‘How will the investment impact ordinary tax payers?’

In the case of the last mega event, the summer Games in Beijing in August 2008, all the answers, in the immediate future at least, will have to be anecdotal. To be fair to the organisers, it must be difficult for them to confess that the Olympics might indeed leave behind a troubled legacy in the long- or medium-term. It is incredible to note, for example, that a bullet train was started only to link Beijing with Tianjin, the venue for soccer and a city some 130 km away. Millions spent on the project may well end up as bad investment. However, the gargantuan Olympic Village, planned to serve as new housing for the city’s inhabitants, is expected to help scale down the escalating real estate prices in Beijing. Whatever the final outcome, there’s little doubt that the Games have transformed Beijing for all times to come.

The direct correlation between host cities and Olympic Games can be traced back to the building of the White City Olympic Stadium in London in 1908. Yet, it was not until World War II that provision of sports venues and athlete villages dominated Olympic preparation, and not until 1960 that the dormant forces for large-scale development surfaced. The Beijing Games, as Chinese scholar Xu Guoqui had suggested, was for his country a moment of ‘crisis’ in the Chinese sense of the word—a moment of mixed danger and unlimited opportunity. It was an opportunity to restore China’s greatness by erasing the scars inflicted by a century of humiliation by the West and subsequently Japan, and replace it with spectacular sporting achievements.

Medals were the immediate aspiration but world dominance was the ultimate intent. It is clear that with the Chinese ruling the medal tally or the gold medal count, the Americans will leave no stone unturned before the next Olympics to regain their lost position. The US, as was evident in Copenhagen, pumped millions into their Olympic programme despite the meltdown. Obama’s presence in Denmark, risking his world reputation, was proof that the Olympics are a national project involving national pride and tenements of global supremacy associated with it.

The fight for primacy between the US and China goes back several years. When the Chinese submitted a bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the right to host the 2000 Games, The New York Times wrote, ‘The city in question is Beijing in the year 2000, but the answer is Berlin 1936. The history of the modern Olympics is too short and the world is too small to forget murder.’ And even when China won the rights to host the 2008 Games, US President Jimmy Carter’s security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, declared, “The Olympics may be a triumph for China, but by intensifying the pressures for change, the Games are quite unlikely to be a triumph for China’s waning communism. In fact, the Games may accelerate its fading.”

Evidently then, governments have used sports bids to play up nationalism. The race for 2016 in Copenhagen demonstrated, more than ever before, that sport ‘realpolitik’ is not dead. This is especially interesting because London 2012 or Rio 2016 will find it exceedingly difficult to match the perfect show at Beijing, a show that is now starting to haunt the Chinese themselves. On 1 February 2009, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the area around the massive Bird’s Nest stadium is to be turned into a shopping and entertainment complex in three to five years. The stadium, the news report went on to state, had not been used since the end of the Games. ‘Paint is already peeling off in certain areas, and the only visitors these days are tourists who pay about $7 to walk on the stadium floor and browse a pricey souvenir shop.’ The report ended with the grim assertion that the stadium, ‘a symbol of China’s rising power and confidence… may never recoup its hefty construction cost, particularly amid a global economic slump.’

A la Beijing, the Sydney Games of 2000, once hailed by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch as the best Olympics ever, personifies the negative impact that mega events can have on host cities. The Sydney Olympic Park, once a symbol of Australian pride, now stands derelict. In fact, getting to the park, some 25 km from the city’s business district, is an ordeal. Ordinary taxpayers continue to bear the brunt of this investment and real estate prices in Sydney continue to be high despite the meltdown. With no proper transportation to channel tourists to the Olympic site, the park remains an example of how things can go wrong while trying to use sports as a module for urban regeneration.

If Sydney resulted in huge spending with little post-Olympic usage, the centennial Games in Atlanta in 1996 was severely criticised for lack of adequate investment in infrastructure and poor transport facilities. The multitudes of problems prompted The Observer newspaper to describe Atlanta as a city in ‘complete chaos’ during the Games, a track record that hurt Chicago badly in Copenhagen.

Barcelona 1992, however, is the exact opposite. With careful planning and excellent implementation, the city serves as a perfect model of what the Olympics can do if facilities constructed for the Games are properly harnessed. Not only tourists who come to Barcelona visit these facilities, it is also well documented that the Games Village contributed much to solving the housing problem that plagued the city in the 1980s. Even the stadium, which hosted the opening ceremony, has since served as the home of the RCD Espanyol football club, which ensures its regular use.

As evident in Copenhagen, it is the question of national pride that is uppermost in the minds of the Games organisers—forcing them to make their bids more fashionable. In doing so, bid cities have started incorporating social goals into the bids, not taking into account the responsibilities associated with implementing such large-scale projects. As Gavin Poynter and Iain Mercury note in their pioneering study on London, ‘The bids are designed to win the competition, the reconciliation of aspirations set down in the candidate file with the financial framework required to deliver them really commences after the winning city is announced. The potential gap between aspiration and reality is filled, according to IOC regulations, by guarantees underwritten by the host city and national governments. The bidding process itself creates the capacity for the confusion of event and non-direct event related investment—the former being expenditure related to putting the event on and the latter being the investment in infrastructure that may strengthen the bid but not be attributable to meeting its direct costs.’

From the experiences of host cities, it can be suggested that the relationship between host city development and mega sports events will continue to depend on the city’s ability to market itself as a key tourism destination following the event and also on its ability to harness the facilities constructed for the Games for its residents. This requires the opening up of new tourist markets and sustaining them over time. Spurred by such intentions, Olympic and Commonwealth Games host cities for 2014 and 2016—Glasgow and Rio respectively—have already embarked on projects of community integration and urban regeneration.

The author is currently finishing a book on the Commonwealth Games (with Nalin Mehta), to be published by Harper Collins in March 2010.