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? 

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.