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.