10 Years Later: Athens Development Gains?

Ten years after the close of the Athens Olympics in 2004, their Olympic legacy comes under scrutiny. The Greek Olympic Committee Chair made a powerful statement for the infrastructure changes that the Olympics can bring about:

It saddens me that public opinion has come to believe the Athens Olympic Games were not successful. They were very much so, both from the sports aspect and through projects that gave life to Athens — tourism has increased, there is a modern airport, roads, the metro, phones work properly and when it’s very hot, the power system doesn’t collapse.

~Spyros Capralos, Greek Olympic Committee Chair

These infrastructure changes would have been made eventually, but the question is whether hosting the Olympics helped Athens accelerate that development. The Chair points to core urban planning results as the core of their legacy, arguably the most concrete definition of success possible. Could Athens have made that progress without bearing the cost of white elephants like the volleyball stadium below?


An auxiliary pitch at an abandoned stadium, which hosted the beach volleyball competition during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, is seen at the Faliro complex south of Athens.(REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis)


Making way for the Olympics: Is the displacement of people ever justified?


Photo courtesy of the AP

Every Olympics is unique–part of the fun is seeing how each host city makes it its own from the opening ceremonies to the type of legacy it hopes to leave behind. Still, there are quite a few common links. From budget overruns to behind schedule projects, in the lead up to every Olympic Games it becomes clear that no matter the steps they take to avoid them, host cities seem to get caught up in the same headlines, making the same choices, and in many cases the same mistakes of hosts before them. One such headline are the billions of dollars spent in development projects that rarely equate to benefits for local citizens.

Why is this the case? Failure to consult local citizens for one and planning that caters more to the needs of Olympic visitors rather than to those of the locals who will be left with this infrastructure for years to come. The most troubling explanation however is the fact that thousands of the local population simply won’t be there to enjoy it. The displacement of locals to make way for Olympic projects has been an ugly reality of far too many Olympic Games. The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has identified the 1988 Games in Seoul and the 2008 Games in Beijing as having been noteworthy in this regard displacing  720,000 and 1.25 million people respectively. COHRE estimates that among mega-events the Olympic Games alone have displaced over 2 million people over the past 20 years. Most recently, an estimated 2,000 people were displaced to make way for the infrastructure of the Sochi Olympics, and already 3,000 have been displaced in Rio de Janeiro in preparation for the 2016 Games.

The ironic or perhaps convenient truth about displacing families to make way for Olympic development is that it is often times done with the best interest of those families in mind. Case in point, authorities in Brazil claim that families removed from their homes and placed in government housing are living in conditions superior to the favelas. CEO of Rio’s Olympic Organizing Committee, Leonardo Gryner, justifies forced evictions as part of the greater good and that new roads and bus lines which have resulted will allow everyone better access to transportation and services. He says that “one of the main reasons that people live in favelas in Rio is because of transportation” and that “when you offer them a new means of transportation, that will help…people to move to new areas farther from the city, living in better conditions…” Those evicted families take issue with this perspective. They no longer own their homes and government complexes are miles from the doctors, schools, and jobs that they had access to in their old neighborhoods. They also complain that the transportation infrastructure is inadequate and far from what would make living in a suburb of Rio realistic.

With decades of case studies at their disposal and an entire portion of the IOC dedicated to knowledge management, we must question how host cities find themselves facing the exact same problems as hosts in prior Olympic Games. In Bidding for Development, we trace this occurrence back to the very inception of a city’s Olympic bid where bid champions and bid committees can choose to take a series of steps that will help position them to reap benefits from the Games no matter the outcome. Chief among these is the decision to engage local citizens in the planning process to ensure that development for the Games will be responsive to local needs.

Unfortunately, the guidepost for Olympic planning is not the fact that after two weeks time the grand stadiums, arenas, and transportation infrastructure of the Games will be left in the hands of local residents. It will either be useful for them and improve their everyday lives or it won’t–more often than not the latter holds true. The Olympic City Project has spent the past few years documenting what remains of Olympic infrastructure in host cities and how it has impacted the lives of the people whose neighborhoods have been transformed by Olympic development. It’s a bleak picture which often reveals misguided planning and communities that are more burdened than blessed by the changes their community saw.

The nature of the Olympics and scale of development required to handle the influx of people who will participate in the Games means that the relocation of people will likely always be a harsh reality for host cities. There is no better scenario than allowing people to stay in their homes and close to the network of family and institutions they count on to survive, but there has to be a middle ground before forcibly relocating people to suburban government housing that puts low income residents already living on the fringe at high risk. So, how do we find this?

A start would to be engaging citizens in a conversation about their future–a step that seems to have been avoided altogether in Rio. And yes, as alluded to above, this step is one which should be taken from from the inception of a bid. Its possible that knowing the risks involved in hosting the Olympics, specifically the need for relocating communities, organizing committees may not be able to gain the buy-in of local communities. But if this is the case, it should be a clear sign to bid champions that something is very wrong with their vision and plans for the Games, and as we recommend in our book, bid leadership should be ready to drop out of the bid process. The bottom line is that legacy matters when you are sending a signal as big as the Olympics to the world and although the short duration of the Games itself plays a large part in shaping that legacy, so too does the usefulness of Olympic infrastructure long after the Games are over. The real opportunity here is the fact that despite the differing interests of the IOC, Policymakers, and citizens, concerns about transportation development  can unite all of these groups. To have that development be meaningful, bidding cities must realize from the outset that public input is vital.

Possible Salt Lake Bid Stands to Redefine Olympic Transportation Legacy

The Oval remains an active stadium and reminder of the impact of the 2002 Games on Salt Lake City. Source: http://www.paceindustrial.com

Over the last year, BID has poured over articles, reports, studies, and interviews to analyze the impact that an Olympic bid can have on transportation development.  No matter how many times a city may have bid, its pursuit of hosting a single Games is often very influenced by a need for transportation infrastructure and stadia that will ideally boost economic growth beyond the Olympics. However, BID had never considered repeat hosts.

This week, the commissioned Utah Olympic Exploratory Committee delivered its report and recommendations to Governor Herbert and Mayor Becker that support a Salt Lake City bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. The report says, “Utah’s Olympic legacy is strong and vibrant and ready to provide the foundation for a future Olympic Winter Games.”

While the Governor and Mayor have not released any formal statements yet, BID is fascinated with the idea of a repeat bidder who may actually host two Olympics just over two decades apart.  Few cities have ever hosted the Olympics multiple times, and in the last century, none less that 40 to 50 years apart.  With the increased emphasis on Olympic legacy and sustainability by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Salt Lake City provides a unique opportunity to see just how much added progress could be made in advancing transportation infrastructure given its perceived successes in 2002.

When Salt Lake City bid to host the 2002 Winter Games, the city already had the foundation for strong transportation infrastructure.  The preparation for the bid and implementation of the Olympic Transportation Plan included millions in federal and local funds for light rail, road expansion and city planning and management projects. However, these funded projects were all meant to enhance an already functioning transportation system. The result, as evidenced in a post-Olympic poll, was an incredible 92 percent of respondents stating transportation was ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ during the Games!  Olympic stadia in Salt Lake, much like roads and rail from the 2002 Games have actually increased in use since the Games ended. Colin Hilton, CEO of the Olympic Legacy Foundation, reports, “The venues have doubled the participation from 10 years ago.”

Given the  enduring positive legacy, which the Committee sites extensively, and integrity of structures and transportation systems from 2002, one has to marvel at how much the estimated $1.67 billion budget for the 2026 Games could do to advance the transportation and infrastructure capacity as well as the international interest and investment in Salt Lake City.  While transportation investments would no doubt be involved in the planning process for Utah Winter Olympics Part 2, it seems reasonable to assume that it would be a fraction of the typical first-time Olympic host city transportation costs. Combined with the close proximity of Salt Lake’s previous gig as an Olympic host, the potential economic benefits to the city will clearly be the focus. Utah and IOC officials contend that hosting the Olympics put Salt Lake “on the map,” but one will have to wait and see if the world is ready to return. At a minimum, the roads, planes and trains that transformed Salt Lake ten years ago, would be a part of the ultimate Olympic legacy…serving another Games.

What Puts the Move in the Olympic Movement? Transportation.

It’s 8 a.m. Any city. Any country. Any season. It’s time to go to work, an event, or school. How do you do this? By car? Train? Bus? Bike? Regardless of the geography, commuting defines the lives of most urban dwellers every day. Transportation infrastructure is the backbone of a city, making or breaking the everyday pulse of a metropolitan area for visitors and residents alike.

While the Olympics and Paralympics Games are not an everyday phenomenon, the success of the world’s most significant mega-event—lasting only a few weeks—relies on a city’s capacity to move a great deal of people efficiently. Visitors come in concentrated masses and their ability to travel from sporting venues to hotels to tourist destinations is an imperative. All the while,  residents of a city must stay on the course too.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognizes the importance of a highly-effective transportation system during the Games, as well as the value of a city’s strong transportation infrastructure in the long run. In an effort to promote positive transportation legacies called for by the principles of The Olympic Movement, the IOC has placed a greater emphasis on a city’s urban projects related to the Games. What’s more, the IOC has taken into consideration the infrastructure development plans for any city impacted by the Olympics…including those cities that bid for the Games, but may not ultimately be selected as host.

In the 1990’s, the IOC created environmental protection criteria that have since applied to all cities engaged in the bidding process. The Olympic Agenda21 “green clause” marks one of the IOC’s first pushes to adopt sustainable development objectives under the greater Olympic Movement. According to this charter, “In order to reduce such impact while at the same time encouraging the mobility which is an important element in development, the Olympic Movement intends to promote schemes.” Not only does this charter require Olympic host cities to develop eco-friendly transport systems for the Games and beyond, the IOC encourages that any cities submitting a bid prove their strategy to meet these stricter environmental terms.

For those cities that actually hosted the Games, the direct influence of the IOC’s bid guidelines—especially those pertaining to sustainable urban development—are more easily measured. The 2000 Summer Games in Sydney are often cited for best practices toward a green legacy. The city’s transport-related initiatives included a ban on private vehicle parking at the venues and an “Olympic bus fleet” powered by low sulfur fuel. According to a report on the long-term effects in Sydney, Richard Cashman of the Australian Centre for Olympic Studies affirms that Sydney set a benchmark in “green” development. His analysis of the Games showed that Sydney went beyond the standard promised in the bid books, and served as an active agent of change.” Sydney’s experience prompted the IOC to deepen its commitment to raising the environment as a key factor in the bid process.

For those cities that bid but did not ultimately “win” the Games, an assessment of the bid process’ impact on sustainable development is less easily identifiable. Nonetheless, many cities galvanized the positive efforts that were made to meet the IOC bid criteria and have experienced progressive change without hosting the Games. The IOC has highlighted several failed bid success stories in the area of urban development, but separate analysis on the impact of the bid process in itself is less widespread or conclusive.

Regardless, the IOC makes it clear that ensuring sustainable transportation legacies is a priority the bid process. IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge stresses that “Legacy is our raison d’être . It ensures that the Olympic Games are more than metres and medals. The Games leave behind a host of social, economic and environmental benefits.” If the urban development initiatives that come about from an Olympic bid help the residents of a city bustle off to their offices, schools, and other destinations in an efficient and eco-friendly manner…then a positive legacy in the transport arena just may have prevailed.

Photo compliments of GreenWala.

Photo Compliments of GreenWala

London’s Olympics Transportation System: A Well Oiled Machine?

Even before the 2012 Games, London was seen as a city with a premier mass transit system. The Tube and double-decker buses are universally well-known. But even with that reputation, how did the city stand the Olympic test?

According to the BBC’s Richard Westcott, the transportation system preparation process “actually worked” to ultimately move the many athletes, IOC commissioners, and fans to and from Olympics activities and competitions.

Some 6.5 billion pounds ($10,277,150,000) was spent patching up wounds on Tube and train lines and people just went another way. The Tube kept smashing its own record for carrying passengers, with four and a half million journeys on the busiest days. There were also record numbers using the Docklands Light Railway, which was 70% busier than usual.

The Tube may have served the commuters well during the Games. However, one must consider other components of a city’s transportation infrastructure. As for the roads, it was assessed that:

There were some problems, of course. The main roads coming into London were bad because of all the changes to the way the traffic lights were phased.

All in all, though, the Olympics reserved lanes and flow of traffic was quite smooth. We can say that the London Olympics transportation game plan was a victory of sorts. Next up…the Paralympics. Will London’s infrastructure be conducive to those with special needs? We are positive that it will!

Olympic lane signage near the Tower of London