The Olympics can hurt host cities. Here's how we fix that

The Christ the Redeemer statue, with the Olympic Stadium behind it. Image: Getty.

Hosting the Olympic Games can be a dubious honour. There can be significant and lasting benefits – but the burden of holding one of the biggest sporting events on Earth can also create and exacerbate problems such as debt, gentrification, city cleansing, militarisation of public space and environmental damage. And Rio is no exception: the government recently declared a state of calamity, as social and economic crises continue to deepen.

Some 22,000 families were evicted in the lead up to the games. Meanwhile, more than 2,500 people have been killed by police in the city since it was awarded the games in 2009.

Preparations have dominated spending priorities for the past seven years, meaning Rio has been unable to allocate enough funds to crucial services such as education and health. Teachers and students have been protesting against cuts to education, and the state will continue to experience a healthcare emergency during the games.

A student spraying "take from the Olympics and invest in my school", outside an occupied school in Rio. Image: Ocupa Amaro.

The world is starting to recognise that these are the risks of hosting the games. Already, the citizens of cities such as Boston, Hamburg and Oslo have decided that the Olympics aren’t for them. It’s not surprising really – few people could honestly say that they prefer to see their tax dollars spent on velodromes, rather than hospitals.

This has left the International Olympic Committee (IOC) scraping the bottom of the barrel for host cities. The 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, where there isn’t even any snow. And the 2024 summer games are no better off – potential hosts are dropping like flies, with Rome looking likely to bow out of the race after electing an anti-Olympic Mayor.

We have a problem

The IOC recognises that there is a problem, and has set out a package of reforms in its “Agenda 2020”, which contains recommendations for host cities to exhibit good governance and tailor their Olympic bids to fit long-term sporting, economic, social and environmental needs. But these efforts haven’t impressed everyone: Olympics scholar Jules Boykoff sums up Agenda 2020 by saying it represents “baby steps where bold strides are required”.

The IOC’s Executive Director Christophe Dubi recently said that these reforms could clearly be seen at Rio 2016. But I’ve spent the past year conducting fieldwork on the preparations for the games here in Rio, and I’ve seen many instances of human rights abuses and corruption – it’s one of the major reasons that so many protests happened in the run up to the games.

Protesters march against the Olympics in Rio. Image: Antonio Larceda/EPA.

So how can the negative impacts of the Olympics be softened? One common suggestion is to have a single host city for the Olympic Games – perhaps in Greece. The problem with the Olympics in their current form is the huge amount of spending on new construction in one location for one event. Even spending on new transport infrastructure is often not directed towards the long-term needs of citizens, instead seeking to serve tourists for 17 days, with little thought given to the needs of the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill.

But, as Boykoff rightly points out, saddling a city such as Athens with this behemoth every four years may not be a particularly appealing prospect for the people who live there – particularly given the dire state of the Greek economy at the moment.

He suggests having five different host cities, and rotating the responsibility between them every five years. While this may be preferable for residents, it only really manages to share the pain around. A more radical reform is required.

Rio’s Olympic aquatics centre: ready for its 17 days of fame. Image: Adam Talbot/author provided.

A suitable solution might arise through embracing technology. In the 21st century, the vast majority of people experience the Olympic Games through the media – mainly television. As Maurice Roche notes, the Olympics are a global media event, which create a unique cultural space where physical distance and time differences can be broken down.


A global solution

So, why not host the games all over the world? Holding events in existing facilities around the world would allow the Olympics to capitalise on some of the world’s most iconic locations, while eliminating the excessive construction and disruption caused for host cities.

This would also solve another problem: for years, the IOC has been unable to include sports like surfing, which require specific environmental conditions to run. But by making the games truly global, organisers could not only feature a surfing event in Hawaii, but also tennis at Wimbledon, football in the Maracanã and other events in iconic venues around the world.

Holding sports where a fan base exists would also drive up ticket sales for events with embarrassingly low levels of attendance. And holding the events over the same time period would mean that very little changes for fans watching on TV. Most crucially, the degradation of human rights in Olympic host cities would finally be history.

The Olympics have the potential to bring the world together. But the glow of the games has been tarnished by terrible abuses of power committed in host cities around the world. As a global civil society, we should all stand up for a better Olympic movement – a mega-event fit for the 21st century. And what better way is there for the global community to reclaim the Olympics than to spread it all over the world?The Conversation

Adam Talbot is doctoral researcher in the sociology of sport at the University of Brighton.

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

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.