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? 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.