A brief history of the Olympics and the city

Rio, 2016. Image: Getty.

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? 

 
 
 
 

What can other cities learn about water shortages from Cape Town’s narrow escape from ‘Day Zero’?

Cape town. Image: Pixabay/creative commons.

Cape Town was set to run dry on 12 April, leaving its 3.7m residents without tap water.

“Day Zero” was narrowly averted through drastic cuts in municipal water consumption and last-minute transfers from the agricultural sector. But the process was painful and inequitable, spurring much controversy.

The city managed to stave off “Day Zero,” but does that mean Cape Town’s water system is resilient?

We think not.

This may well foreshadow trouble beyond Cape Town. Cities across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Canada, are well into another summer season that has already brought record-setting heat, drought and flooding from increased run-off.

Water crises are not just about scarcity

Water scarcity crises are most often a result of mismanagement rather than of absolute declines in physical water supplies.

In Cape Town, lower than average rainfall tipped the scales towards a “crisis,” but the situation was worsened by slow and inadequate governance responses. Setting aside debates around whose responsibility it was to act and when, the bigger issue, in our view, was the persistence of outdated ways of thinking about “uncertainty” in the water system.

As the drought worsened in 2016, the City of Cape Town’s water managers remained confident in the system’s ability to withstand the drought. High-level engineers and managers viewed Cape Town’s water system as uniquely positioned to handle severe drought in part because of the vaunted success of their ongoing Water Demand Management strategies.

They weren’t entirely mistaken — demand management has cut overall daily consumption by 50 per cent since 2016. So what went wrong?


Limits to demand management

First, Cape Town’s approach to water management was not well-equipped to deal with growing uncertainty in rainfall patterns — a key challenge facing cities worldwide. Researchers at the University of Cape Town argued recently that the conventional models long used to forecast supply and demand underestimated the probability of failure in the water system.

Second, Cape Town’s water system neared disaster in part because demand management seemed to have reached its limits. Starting late last year, the city imposed a limit on water consumption of 87 litres per person per day. That ceiling thereafter shrunk to 50 litres per person per day.

Despite these efforts, Cape Town consistently failed to cut demand below the 500m-litre-per-day citywide target needed to ensure that the system would function into the next rainy season.

The mayor accused the city’s residents of wasting water, but her reprimanding rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that the citizens were non-compliant. The continuously shrinking water targets were an untenable long-term management strategy.

Buffers are key to water resilience

In the end, “Day Zero” was avoided primarily by relying on unexpected buffers, including temporary agricultural transfers and the private installation of small-scale, residential grey-water systems and boreholes in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods. The former increased water supply and the latter lowered demand from the municipal system. These buffers are unlikely to be available next year, however, as the water allocations for the agricultural sector will not be renewed and there is uncertainty in the long-term sustainability of groundwater withdrawals.

For more than a decade, Cape Town has levelled demand, reduced leaks and implemented pressure management and water restrictions. This made Cape Town’s water system highly efficient and therefore less resilient because there were fewer reserves to draw from in times of unusual scarcity.

The UN Water 2015 report found that most cities are not very resilient to water risks. As water managers continue to wait for climate change models to become more certain or more specific, they defer action, paralysing decision-makers.

If we really want our cities to be water-resilient, we must collectively change long-held ideas about water supply and demand. This will require technological and institutional innovation, as well as behavioural change, to create new and more flexible buffers — for example, through water recycling, green infrastructure and other novel measures.

Although Cape Town avoided disaster this year, that does not make it water-resilient. Despite the arrival of the rainy season, Cape Town is still likely to face Day Zero at some point in the future.

The ConversationThere’s a good chance that the city is not alone.

Lucy Rodina, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia and Kieran M. FindlaterUniversity of British Columbia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.