The Urban Games

August 3, 2016
For Olympic host cities, wins and losses last forever

On a field of dirt, about a hundred octagonal white tents are lined up in neat rows. They’re weather-beaten and coated with dust, but the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees still peeks through on their fabric rooftops, revealing their purpose. Like many refugee camps set up in recent years, this one is a mix of desperation and inactivity. Unlike most others, it’s surrounded by stadium seating.

This is the field of the baseball stadium built for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The stadium has gone mostly unused in the 12 years since the city spent $15 billion putting on the games. Its recent turn as a refugee camp, along with other Olympic venues in the city, has been a rare reuse of a very expensive structure built for a two-week event with seemingly little thought of what would happen after. Most of the projects Athens built for the Olympics have struggled to find a use after the Games, leaving venues barren and rotting. Notwithstanding Greece’s subsequent economic crisis and its current struggle to handle the refugee flow from various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the Olympics have left Athens with deep and expensive scars.

Increasingly over the past half century, the Olympics have been seen as an opportunity for host cities to instigate large-scale urban improvement programs, from infrastructure building to the regeneration of entire segments of the city. The hard deadlines associated with the event can provide extra momentum to pursue wishlist projects, like new airports and transit lines, as well as the incentive to make big investments that might otherwise be politically challenging.

But sometimes the rush to prepare can result in ill-planned projects and venues with little chance of being needed after the event. Abandoned stadiums are sprinkled across Athens. Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium has been used only occasionally since that city hosted the Olympics in 2008, and costs the public $11 million a year to maintain. The sites of the $51 billion 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, mostly sit idle.

The International Olympic Committee and local organizers are now trying to avoid these kinds of planning missteps and bad investments; leaving behind a positive "legacy" is the new Olympic imperative. London, which spent roughly $15 billion hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics, has been the most proactive in thinking about its Olympic planning as a way to generate long-term benefits for the city, focusing its investments on redeveloping an economically struggling part of the city. Rio de Janeiro, days away from the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics, is hoping to parlay its hosting duties into improved housing and transportation infrastructure—though there are many signs organizers are falling short.

Is hosting the Olympics worth it? Though organizers will invariably say yes, the truth is more complex than a yes or a no, and differs greatly based on the city.

Rome, host of the 1960 Summer Olympics, is regarded as the first Olympic host to use the event as an impetus for urban change, undertaking a suite of major regional infrastructure projects, upgrading roads, bridges, public transit, and airport capacity over the course of just five years. It was also the first Olympics broadcast on television around the world, beginning the era of the Olympics as a global spectacle under a bright spotlight.

Montreal’s 1976 hosting duties generated deep debt for its main Olympic stadium and related sites, costing taxpayers $1.5 billion—13 times more than originally estimated—that was only finally paid off in 2006, 30 years later. Los Angeles’s 1984 Olympics have proven to be one of the most fiscally responsible Olympics, which the city achieved by reusing many existing venues from its previous hosting stint in 1932 and other sites throughout the city. It’s often celebrated as an example of how not to saddle a city with expensive and underused sports facilities, and, perhaps most importantly, as the first Olympic Games to turn a profit for the host, creating a $225 million surplus—and helping to establish the Olympics as a moneymaking opportunity.

More recently, host cities have aspired to use the Olympics to make a broader urban impact. The high water mark is Barcelona in 1992, where officials focused on redeveloping parts of the city, particularly a former industrial area along the waterfront that became a mixed-use neighborhood to house the athletes’ village. The city subsequently became a major tourist destination. It also exceeded its original budget by roughly 266 percent, according to a recent study. Regardless, the host cities since Barcelona have all tried to emulate this urban redevelopment success.

For the modern era, Athens and London offer two contrasting examples of what cities can get from hosting the Olympics—a collection of unusable, debt-collecting sports venues or a catalyst for the regeneration of a huge swath of the city. But even within each of these extremes, there are shades of failure and success, of mismanagement of public funds and prudent investments in the public interest, of projects that benefit the many or just a few. Each city offers lessons for others hoping to use such megaevents to spur urban improvements. More than any other two-week period, the Olympic Games result in choices, plans, and projects that can affect a city for generations—for the better and, more often, for the worse. ...