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Olympic legacy: Reflections on urban and global connectivity
The modern Olympic Games are a major sports event with cultural roots and unquestionable political, social and economic extensions and a strong impact on these three fields, but also on sport, spatial planning, the environment and technology, for the host city and, in certain cases, for the country as a whole. The strategy underpinning the success of the Olympic undertaking develops in three successive stages: the candidature acceptance procedure and the preparation of the file, the organisation process and, finally, the legacy of the Games.
This triple process has become more evident after the Barcelona Games. The International Olympic Committee attaches particular importance, these last few years to the “Olympic legacy”, which is the period that can have the greatest influence on the host city. The IOC states, for reasons linked to the appeal of the candidature for countries wishing to host the Games that the success of the undertaking directly depends on the legacy that will be passed on to the host city. The IOC has therefore made its choice clear i.e. “that it was fair and of capital importance that those involved in the planning process of the Olympic Games take fully into consideration the effects of the actions and policies applied, as well as the heritage that will result from the staging of the Games. Because of their importance, the Olympic Games can provide opportunities for major improvements and important results. At the same time, the lack of a vision and management of the Games could lead to lost opportunities and a heavy and costly burden for the host city”.
On 14-16 November 2002, the IOC organised an international symposium in Lausanne in order to consider the concept of “legacy”. The topics that were discussed were the following: Understanding the legacy of the Olympic Games and its evolution through history, sport, communication (national and international), education (officials), society (awareness-raising on specific issues), economy, environment, city-country (facilities, overlays), policies, culture, documentation, technology and tourism.
“Olympic legacy” is defined as a project aiming to ensure that the staging of a major event of short duration like the Olympic Games can contribute to the development and sustainability of programmes that will have a positive impact on the city and its residents for many years to come.
Within this general framework, we are convinced that the organisation of an important event like the Olympic Games could act as a catalyst in order to speed up the implementation of new town planning and urban renewal projects, as well as infrastructures, etc. or the resumption of projects that were interrupted for political or financial reasons. Although the necessary investments might be quite high, the long term benefits for the city may prove to be considerable, provided that the Games are not considered as an end in themselves but as an opportunity to develop and promote the city. In order to benefit from all the opportunities that will emerge, certain factors need to be thoroughly examined, i.e.:
a) The tradition of a positive and sustainable legacy requires a long term vision and early planning.
b) This means coordination of Olympic legacies, in particular for the facilities that rely on long term planning and management of a city, in addition to its town planning needs. The participation and involvement of those responsible for the development of cities is therefore essential, alongside citizens’ consultation and commitment.
c) The lasting legacies must be handled by the relevant bodies, i.e. public authorities and enterprises. These organisations will always be there after the Games and must consolidate and supervise the planning and implementation of the Olympic projects.
d) The objectives of the legacies have to be realistic since the Olympic Games will not be able to deal with all the challenges faced by a host city or country.
e) Provision will have to be made for a precise distribution of roles and duties during the planning, design and implementation of the projects, as well as ongoing management and operational organisation.
f) The host city, region or country, does not necessarily need to wait until the closing of the Games in order to benefit from the Olympic projects.
g) Post-Olympic use is extremely important and requires thorough, early and adequate planning.
h) The socioeconomic models of the different Games.
The success of the Olympic Games can only be guaranteed if it is part of a broader programme capable of responding, in the long run, to urban needs with a sustainable long-term vision for the city. It would be a mistake to think today that Olympic facilities and Olympic villages alone can create an urban dowry that will generate major benefits for the host city and its residents. They can, however, be an integral part of a city’s modernization, its renovation plan and the development of a new pole of attraction and communication infrastructures. The transformation of the badminton Olympic venue in Athens into a popular and very busy theatre complex, the creation of Vancouver 2010 Whistler and the Olympic and Paralympic Village will allow the local community to benefit from affordable housing and a sports centre, the transformation of the Barceloneta in Barcelona, the regeneration of the Lower Lea Valley in the Eastern part of London, which will improve public transport and sport and educational facilities, creating job opportunities and important services for its residents, are vibrant examples of a long term vision and planning, that take city needs into consideration.
The long-term benefits for the city will be considerable if the Olympic Games are part of a comprehensive project and are used for the city’s development and spatial planning for today’s and tomorrow’s visitors.
The preceding remarks allow us to identify the relationship between the “Olympic legacy” and the urban space of the host city. The challenge is the following: to what extent can the Olympic Games have an impact on the change or modernization of its urban governance structures.
This is where we find the golden mean: the servicing of the Olympic Games should be aligned on the vital functions of the host city. This approach could be facilitated by a transfer of know-how from other cities, in this sector in particular. Another point that should be specially considered is the progress of Olympic projects or the opportunity which the Games provide, with respect to each country’s legal framework.
The case of cities 1984-2008
The Games size and lasting impact will depend on the number of new facilities and new urban infrastructure. In a rather recent past, cities had either built most of the Olympic venues especially for the Games (Moscow 1980, Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000), or used existing facilities (Los Angeles 1984, Atlanta 1996). In Los Angeles in 1984, efforts were mostly focused on the city’s aesthetic aspects: colour, decoration and many others in order to enhance the Games festive image. In Seoul, four years later, the emphasis was on new buildings and facilities, which were completed in record time and on the environmental regeneration of the two banks of the river that goes through the city. Beijing’s preparations were based on the same principles and on the decision to bequeath most of the sports facilities to the city’s universities.
I would like to refer here to two specific cases, the cases of Barcelona and Sydney.
The Olympic Games of 1992 changed the city’s map in an impressive way. Traffic in the heart of the city was reduced thanks to a major increase in street capacity. The city centre was moved to the waterfront after the removal of a number of warehouses and a railway and handed over to the public. The Catalonians were able to carry through, very successfully, an integrated urban and architectural intervention in their city making the Games the section between its old and new image. The increase in the number of tourists during a decade confirms the success of the undertaking, at least as regards the relationship between the Olympic legacy and the urban space.
In the case of Sydney, the suburb of Homebush, 15 kilometres away from the city centre, became an Olympic venue that did not in any way recall the highly polluted area before the Games. In Homebush there were 18 venues –the largest ever built in an Olympic park– close to the Olympic village. For the Games, the metro network was also extended, reaching almost to the entrance of the Olympic Stadium. The new mass-transit network and a series of new interventions gave the city a cosmopolitan image. In their vast majority, the venues were an incomegenerating asset for the Australian city.
The case of Athens 2004
In order to present the Olympic legacy of the Games of 2004 in the urban area of Athens and the broader Attica region, we need to refer to the city’s image at the beginning of the 90s. At that time, Athens was a city that did not have infrastructures, in particular for mass-transit, leading to huge traffic problems and air pollution. The Greek capital found it very difficult to remain a sustainable city, after a long period of massive increase of its population, with negative effects on its tourist development. For many people during that period, Athens presented the image of a city falling into decline, whose residents expressed their concern and ill-being.
The urban governance system in the metropolitan area of Athens was distinguished by high level concentration and fragmentation and the absence of complementarity and cohesion in the implementation of urban policies, very low development of participatory institutions and a low level also of intervention or representation of civil society in the decision-making process.
It is not surprising therefore that when Athens was a candidate for 2004 and was awarded the Games, Olympic preparation was promoted “as a wonderful opportunity for spatial and urban rehabilitation of the metropolitan area of Athens, by means of modern, environmentally friendly sports, tourist, social and cultural facilities, the enhancement of poles of greater importance that serviced the whole region of the capital and the protection, comprehensive management and promotion of important areas from an environmental, historical and aesthetic point of view”.
The objectives of spatial and housing planning of the Athens metropolitan area, as well as the choice of the site of the Olympic venues were part of the updating of the Athens Master Plan (AMP), which had been developed by the Ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works in the form of a comprehensive intervention with the view to dealing with the city’s most important problems.
The inclusion of the 2004 Olympics in the strategic choices of the spatial and housing planning of the metropolitan region of Athens was the object of law 2730/1999. The aim of this law was, inter alia, to:
• promote Athens as a metropolitan capital of international and European reputation, a centre for service provision and business activities in peak sectors;
• promote a system of important periurban poles that meet the vital functions of the whole metropolitan area of Athens.
Athens in 2004 had to answer the dilemma: “the city for the Games or the Games for the city”, by choosing the second option.
In any case, in the time span from the non-awarding of the Games of 1996 and 1997 when the city was awarded the Games of 2004, many things had changed. Major infrastructure projects were being constructed: the Athens metro, the Attiki Odos highway, the new “Eleftherios Venizelos” airport, the improvement of telecommunications.
The emphasis that was given to the urban and environmental dimension had been dictated by the IOC, which had amended its Olympic Charter in 1996 in order to include environmental protection as one of the major pillars of the Olympic Movement.
According to this direction, the quality and quantity of the Olympic venues were one of the most important effects of the Games on the city’s infrastructure.
The Olympic projects of Athens included five sports venues of periurban importance in the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, three sports venues of periurban importance in the coastal zone of Phaliron, six venues in the Hellenikon Olympic Complex, as well as venues situated in other parts of Attica, which were underdeveloped before the Games (Ano Liosia, Peristeri, etc.).
In order to grasp the importance of sports venues in the city’s infrastructure, suffice it to say that 32 sports venues of Olympic level were used, 18 of which were new venues, 12 existing ones that had been completely renovated and 2 temporary venues. Among the others, 20 remained sports venues, 9 changed or were used for other purposes and 3 were multi-purpose venues (for sports and other activities).
The most important independent project of the Games was the Olympic village, whose social contribution is obvious.
The infrastructure projects that were built for the Games and the city of Athens received a major boost: they included 120 new roads, 90 km of rebuilt roadway, 40 new interchanges, which created a new infrastructure framework in the city.
We must not forget to add to this the construction of flood protection works on Kifissos, Poseidonos and Marathon. The city acquired a metro and tram network and the rail line Piraeus-Kifissia was modernised after many decades. Major improvements were also made to the ports of Lavrion, Rafina and Piraeus. During that period, the suburban train was put into service and its network is being constantly expanded. To meet the requirements of the Games, a traffic management centre was established, which maximised the capacity of the main road network. Important investments were made in the Greek Public Power Corporation, the Greek Telecommunications Organisation and the Port of Piraeus.
The development of the Phaleron coastal area was the first step that allowed the city to turn towards the sea.
We can say that this extensive regeneration of the Attica regions (improvement of the pavement network for disabled people, repairs to public buildings) would not have been initiated and completed if Athens had not been chosen to host the Olympic Games. For example, the unification of the archaeological sites of the city’s historic centre had become imperative. During the Games, Athens showed a modern, younger look that no longer resembled that of the previous decade. The transformation of the city’s road network with the construction of the Attiki Odos ring road and the Ymittos beltway reduced the length of the journey considerably. The widening of the Athens-Rafina-Marathon and Vari-Koropi roads allowed quick access to these regions, as well as to the archaeological sites of Marathon, Ramnous and Brauron.
During the Games Athenians learned to use mass transit that met the needs of a modern metropolis. Athens was now considered, after many years, as an attractive tourist destination throughout the year.
The capital’s infrastructure, over and above the functional requirements of residents and visitors, strengthened its position making it a pole of attraction for other international events. The extensive refurbishing of the city’s hotels is another example of the enhanced image of urban spaces, in addition to the environment-friendly renovation of public transport, the rehabilitation of hospitals, etc.
I would like to note, however, that the Attica landscape was overloaded with unnecessary constructions. A more daring policy for temporary venues could have freed Olympic preparation from bureaucracy and the problems it generates. Temporary venues (Olympic overlays), multi-purpose or detachable, which were not chosen in the end, would have been perfectly suitable for a country like Greece where climate conditions and lifestyle fully respond to the provisional approach.
Delays in promoting Olympic legacy significantly reduced the advantages that Athens could have obtained, which would have generated benefits over time.
The appreciable improvement of the Athenians’ quality of life thanks to the organisation of the Games cannot be questioned; it would also be difficult to say that the Greek state handled Olympic legacy as a “legacy” as confirmed by the post-Olympic use of Olympic facilities.
The problems of post-Olympic development and use –a conclusion shared by all host cities– mostly pertain to sports venues whose maintenance costs are high and cannot easily be integrated in the city’s functional fabric without a previous in-depth study of their future. Urban infrastructures were and are used intensively in all cases.
In the 21st century, the city is always at the forefront as a model of man’s social organisation. The staging of the Olympic Games continues to be an area of intense competition among cities. However, the “bad points” of the Games, gigantism in particular, have tarnished their glamour. Sooner or later, the Olympic Movement will need to revive cities’ interest in organising the greatest event of the planet by strengthening the cost benefit ratio of the Games infrastructures. Promoting interventions acting as a catalyst on urban space, with the opportunity of the Games, could also “convince” cities of the opportunities offered to them.
An international team – with a consulting role - will have to be set up composed of scientists, who will closely follow procedures, in an advisory capacity, under the auspices of the IOC, from the preparation of the bid file to the development of a project for enhancing the Olympic legacy. Its role will be to contribute know-how in order to maximise the Games impact on the host city’s urban environment. Olympic cities can therefore initiate an intercontinental dialogue between them thus applying the idea of global connectivity.
Reports of the meeting of the Technical Chamber of Greece on the subject: The impact of the Olympic Games of Beijing, Athens, Sydney, Barcelona - The development of Olympic venues and projects, 7-8 May 2009.
Andranovich G., Burbank J.M., Heying H.C., “Olympic Cities: Lessons Learned from Mega-Event Politics”. In Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2001.
Brent Ritchie J.R., “Turning 16 days into 16 years through Olympic Legacies”. In Event Management, Vol. 6, 2000.
Gianakourou Georgia, Trava Heleni, The Olympic Games and Law. The legal framework of the 2004 Olympic organisation, Sakkoulas Publishers, Athens-Komotini 2001.
The Proceedings of the Conference on Olympic Games and the Environment, Hellenic Environmental Law Society, Sakkoulas Publishers Athens – Komotini 2002
Synadinos P., A city’s struggle, Kastaniotis Publishers, Athens 2004.
Synadinos P., “The impact of the organization of the Olympic Games”, Ioannis Giosos, Dimitra Papadimitriou, Petros Synadinos, Major events, the case of the Olympic Games, Division of Tourism and Tourist Enterprises, Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Patras 2000.
Ministry of Culture – General Secretariat of the Olympic Games, The post-Olympic development of Olympic projects. Second axis: proposal on the post-Olympic use of Olympic projects. Final report. University of Thessaly – Laboratory of Urban and Spatial Planning, November 2003.
SYNADINOS Petros, "Olympic legacy: Reflections on urban and global connectivity", in: K. Georgiadis(ed.), INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC ACADEMY, 53th International Session for Young Participants (Ancient Olympia, 11-25/6/2013), International Olympic Academy, Athens, 2014, pp.76-84.