For as long as the Olympics have been running, eager host cities have expected them to do far more than entertain the world’s TV audience for just under two and a half weeks. While they might cost more to hold than they immediately earn back, they’re meant to leave behind a “legacy”, a conveniently vague notion taking in well-maintained stadiums and sport-loving children. As no less an authority than the International Olympic Association says, the games are expected to leave behind “more than just good memories”.
In some cities, the Games deliver on this hazy prophecy. Others are left with ghost town Olympic villages and “white elephant” stadiums*. Debt can be another a nasty reminder of the Games’ excesses: the Quebec government ended up introducing a new tax on tobacco to pay off Montreal’s whopping Olympic bill. Damaging Olympic legacies may well have contributed to the general lack of interest in hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics (all but two cities have dropped out of the bidding process).
So why do some games leave golden legacies, while others take the metaphorical form of a large, destructive pet?
“Sydney's games apparently accelerated the growth of 'brand Australia' by 10 years”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) publishes a factsheet outlining the long-lasting benefits for its host cities. For some, even the length of the entry speaks volumes: Vancouver 2010 gets two pages; Nagano, Japan just a quarter of a page.
More damning are those reports in which airy, untestable claims are presented in place of concrete achievements. In Beijing, for example, 400 million schoolchildren were apparently “exposed to Olympic values”, while Sydney’s games “accelerated the growth of ‘brand Australia’ by ten years”. Other reports have shown that Sydney’s games drove more people to watch TV than ever before – a positive effect for the country’s networks, but arguably not top of the priority list for anyone else.
Last February, former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed slamming excess spending on the games, and arguing that Greece’s $11bn spend on Athens 2004 “pushed the country towards collapse”. He had a point: Athens constructed purpose-built sporting venues a long way out of town. These are now rarely used and barely maintained, with stopped clocks and damaged facilities that have become the subject of photo essay after photo essay.
Yet Barcelona, which reportedly spent $9.3bn on the 1992 Games – the equivalent of $12.5bn in 2004 – remains one of the biggest Olympic success stories. The key was the city’s decision to spend only 9.1 per cent of its budget on the operating costs of the Games themselves; the remaining $8.5bn, the vast majority of the funding, went on improving the city’s transport and services and constructing two miles of beach on a stretch of coast previously occupied by industrial buildings
Barcelona’s Port Vell harbour, built for the 1992 games. Image: Diliff at Wikimedia Commons.
The Sochi winter games cost $51bn, the highest price tag ever recorded. Human rights abuses, stories of bribery and logistical mess-ups (what better way to generate bad press than putting up journalists in unfinished hotels?) marred the image of the Games themselves.
Yet Sochi was far from a straightforward tale of failure: the Games kickstarted long-lasting development in the region, including the completion of an airport (which had been on pause since 1989) and improvements to power, telecommunications and access for the disabled.
The success stories, on the whole, are those which prioritised forward planning at the expense of the wow-factor. Before the 1984 LA Olympics, officials decided that only two sporting facilities would be built for the Games. That meant the $413m cost of the event – a snip compared to the $1.35bn spent by Moscow four years before – was almost entirely spent on other projects. The profits from the games were reinvested into projects like LA84, a youth sporting foundation.
Compare and contrast with Montreal’s 1976 Games, which may well have the worst legacy of all. The greatest disaster was, unsurprisingly, the stadium. Construction originally cost at $770m; by the time the debts were finally paid off 30 years later, the figure had reached $1.5bn.
Montreal’s Olympic stadium, paid for by the city’s smokers. Image: Tolivero at Wikimedia Commons.
London had a near-miss. In 2008, mayor Boris Johnson slammed the lack of post-Games proposals for the Olympic park, and final plans for the park were not unveiled until August 2012, weeks after the Games’ completion. Better managed were the original proposals for the sporting structures. Of the venues used, 95 per cent were hired out, while 25 temporary venues were constructed. The permanent venues have been converted for community use, leaving the city with no looming, useless sporting structures. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which opened to the public in July 2013, has already received over 1 million visitors, and, in the words of London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, forms the “glittering centrepiece” of the post-Olympics regeneration effort in East London.
It looks like Germany, at least, has learnt these lessons. Both Berlin and Hamburg have put forward remarkably restrained proposals for the 2024 Summer Olympics; both feature inner-city building and the reuse of existing venues, too.
There’s no one size fits all formula for a successful legacy – not least because the challenges facing host cities in advanced economies are so different to the ones facing emerging ones. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, the cost to emerging markets is usually higher; as in Sochi, however, investment purportedly for the Games can be used to boost infrastructure and living conditions, making the return on this investment look pretty worthwhile. The lasting legacy of the Beijing Olympics is not its Birdcage stadium, now touted to be transformed into a shopping and entertainment centre: it’s in the improvements to sanitation, air quality and transport that came with it.
*This phrase “white elephant”, incidentally, comes from a story in which Siamese kings gave the animals to annoying courtiers, as they would cost so much to maintain or dispose of that they would ruin the recipient. So, now you know.