What makes a successful Olympic legacy?

What’s left when the rings are gone? Image: Fæ at Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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