The modern Olympics have always been inescapably urban events. Since Athens 1896, the games have moved around host cities every four years (with the exceptions of both world wars). Over this time, they have become the world’s largest sporting and cultural spectacle.
The history of the urban Olympics does not follow a linear narrative, however: over time, the relationships between the Olympics and their urban form have changed substantially. The 1908 London games, for example, were the first to introduce a piece of specifically Olympic architecture, in the form of the White City Stadium that would house most Olympic events. But those games had relatively little impact on London as a whole.
Towards the mid twentieth century, Olympic urbanisation expanded to the construction of special Olympic Quarters. Los Angeles 1932 built the first Olympic village, incorporating housing into Olympic urbanism. Not to be outdone, Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936 pushed forward an Olympics of monumentalism, spectacle, and propaganda, and were the first Olympics to be televised.
Helsinki introduced the first proper Olympic Park in 1952, a policy Melbourne copied four years later. But it was Rome 1960 that really represents the key watershed in the history of Olympic urbanism. This was the first time that the Olympics were used as a catalyst and legitimator of rapid and widespread urban transformation and infrastructural renewal.
The scale and cost of the Rome games was seen as so excessive that calls were made for the 1964 games to be cancelled. In the event, though, Tokyo took Rome’s extravagance even further. As a result, fewer cities bid for the 1968 games: most possible hosts feared they’d simply become too big and expensive. In 1968, the eventual winner, Mexico City, chose to rely on existing infrastructure and sporting arenas, and to host a much less lavish version of the Olympics.
Los Angeles 1984 was another transformative Olympics – not in its use of existing sports facilities, but in its commercial success and reliance on the private sector and corporate sponsorship. This signalled the collision of Olympism with full-fledged consumer capitalism.
In 1992, Barcelona used the Olympics to regenerate a large portion of its formerly-industrial or under-developed urban fabric, and adopted a long-term vision of Olympic-led urban change – or, as we know it now, legacy. Fast forward twenty years, and London 2012 built on Barcelona’s vision to regenerate a disadvantaged corner of east London. There, the Olympics intersected with long-standing regeneration initiatives in the East End, and aimed to establish socio-economic ‘convergence’ with the rest of London.
As the brief and limited examples above demonstrate, the relationship between the Olympic Games and the urban form has been historically contingent and dynamic. Some cities cluster events around a small and well defined Olympic Park; others, such as Tokyo 2020, disperse events more evenly around the city.
Over the last few decades, and especially since Los Angeles 1984, cities’ motivation for bidding to host the Olympics have been as competitive as athletes’ motivations for taking part. In a global political economy defined by inter-urban competition, cities are forced to compete with one another to attract international investment, tourism, and the creative class, all in the name of ‘getting ahead’.
As a result, urban governance – especially in the post-industrial cities of the Global North – has become increasingly entrepreneurial in outlook, prioritising economic growth and creativity over the provision of social welfare. Cities in competition with each other are concerned with their own image. A positive, dynamic and innovative urban image is hugely important in advertising urban space.
The Olympics have come to offer a valuable way for cities to attract investment, become the centre of global attention, and push through urban regeneration schemes that might otherwise have been too contentious or unpopular to succeed. The Olympics not only regenerate a city’s urban fabric and infrastructure, but also reimage the city as a successful place. Or so the narrative goes.
In recent years, the urban Olympic spectacle has been underpinned by new forms of governance and power dynamics in delivering the Games, and new forms of representing what it means to be an Olympic City. It is assumed that the city must present an image of cohesion, and be a place lacking in conflict. This became a problem for Rio in 2016 – a city which wanted to enhance its prestige on the world stage, but whose favelas presented organisers with an ‘image problem’.
The organisers chose two solutions to their ‘problem’. First, the favelas ‘became invisible’. Many were either bulldozed or hidden behind new walls. Some were airbrushed out of maps and from media images. Secondly, the favelas were visibly ‘pacified’, either through massive police intervention, or by simply painting them in bright and playful colours to disassociate them from their reputation for crime and poverty.
The image of the Olympic City broadcast to the world is a necessarily partial one. It must exclude those who do not fit its narrative, those who might be deemed troublesome or prohibitive to investment. Now more than ever, it seems that large numbers of people are realising that they do not fit into this urban spectacle.
The Olympics have always been the locus of protest – but now the scope and scale of urban protests against the games are expanding and starting much earlier in the Olympic cycle. Rather than retroactively challenging the way Olympic-led urban development materialises, broad coalitions of actors are now challenging the Olympics at their source: the bid.
For the first time in generations, sustained normative questions are being asked of the Olympics and the games’ relationship to the urban. As well as the success of protests, this fragility has been cloven apart by the exposure of state-sponsored doping, corruption within the IOC and the growing visibility of redundant structures littered across former host cities. In short, the negative dimensions of the Olympic spectacle are now well known.
Consider the recent bidding process for the 2024 games. Boston cancelled its bid because of a lack of public support. Hamburg pulled out after a referendum of its residents. Rome’s bid collapsed due to financial difficulties, and finally Budapest pulled the plug after 260,000 people signed a petition against hosting the games.
Olympic Lanes: one of the less popular innovations of London 2012. Image: Getty.
This left only Paris and Los Angeles. With no other candidates, Paris and LA were awarded the 2024 and 2028 games respectively. This was an unprecedented decision by the IOC, one surely made to try and stabilise a global movement under growing pressure. Both bids highlighted the re-use of existing facilities, and the construction of temporary venues to avoid massive overspends and a legacy zoo filled with white elephants.
It seems fair to say that another period of Olympic restructuring is under way. Looking ahead to 2032, interesting propositions are entering the pipeline that are potentially game-changing. The Olympic Charter states that the Olympics can only be awarded to a host city, rather than a country: the whole identity of the Olympics as a global movement is predicated on cities.
This is why the Rhein-Ruhr 2032 is so significant. It proposes a multi-city Olympics, across 13 cities centred on Düsseldorf. It will host 80 per cent of events in existing venues. Even though this region sees itself as a larger metropolitan space, it nevertheless comprises several distinct cities.
Compared to clustered morphologies of previous Games, this could represent a new era of hosting the Olympics: an era that dials back on the excesses of spectacle, gigantism, and ‘starchitecture’. It envisages games that does not involve the mass displacement of local residents through Compulsory Purchase Orders or the power of Eminent Domain. It aspires to be a games that does not leave expensive architectural reminders of a transient festival to be paid for by the taxpayer. It hopes to be era in which Olympic hosts are still able to invest a fair and progressive amount to vital public services.
But perhaps we should not underestimate the power of the Olympic movement to reinvent itself. There has never been a consistently defined modality of Olympic urbanism. The IOC remains immensely powerful, in spite of its recent self-inflicted wounds.
The future remains unclear. We can only hope that recent trends usher in a new, less destructive, more democratic iteration of the Olympics as an urban spectacle.
Why not listen to the episode of our podcast, Skylines, about the Olympics and the city?