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A sporting chance

The London 2012 Olympic Games are not only a world-class global event, but a springboard for renovation, investment and development – provided the city is equipped to seize the opportunity. Rita Lobo reports on the rewards and pitfalls in the road to becoming an Olympic Capital

Signs of Decay on the Athens 2004 Olympic Games Complex

When Barcelona won its Olympic bid in 1986 to host the now legendary 1992 Games it was an industrial city with little economic or tourist appeal. The successful bid provided the Catalan city with the impetus and capital it needed to reinvent itself as an artistic and cultural epicentre and popular tourist destination.

Since then, the Olympic Games have been seen as the perfect opportunity to redevelop degraded or struggling urban areas. When London won its bid to host the 2012 Games in 2005, its plans revolved around reinventing East London – one of the most economically deprived areas of Britain – much like Barcelona did to its port region. But beyond that, cities have used the Olympic Games to project themselves internationally, and emerge on the other side with a new image – and hopefully a lot of new business opportunities and wealthy tourists.

With the help of the 2012 Games, London is trying to rejuvenate its image and re-emerge as not simply an ‘Olympic Capital’, but a modern, cosmopolitan urban capital that is always ready for business. However, it remains to be seen if London has what it takes to convert that investment into a lasting and positive legacy.

Barcelona, 1992
The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona have since been labelled the ‘model Olympics’. The Games themselves ran smoothly, but the real triumph was the reinvention of Barcelona’s image. Prior to 1992, the area that is now Port Olimpic was a degraded industrial tip and the city, despite being adorned with Antoni Gaudi’s magnificent modernist buildings, was not on anyone’s list as a desired holiday destination.

Barcelona won their Olympic bid just four years after the country’s first free elections in 40 years. The city, and Spain as a whole, was eager to prove to the world that they were ready to embrace modernity and democracy. “The entire Spanish society was involved and looking at Barcelona to represent on a worldwide level the desire of all Spaniards to become a modern society that was preparing for the arrival of the 21st century”,  says Pere Durán, the former General Director of Turisme de Barcelona.

Between winning the bid in 1986 and the opening of the Games in July 1992, Barcelona spent e11bn, the bulk of which went on the construction of Olympic venues, the Olympic Village and supporting infrastructure. “The Games were the excuse, perhaps the incentive, for a general process of analysis of the city in general and in particular of its role as a tourist centre,” says Durán. It is said that before the Olympic Games came to town, Barcelona was a city with its back to the coast, however, such was the extent of the development that the city was spun on its axis.

Barcelona cleverly used the Games, and the in-pour of investment that came with their successful bid, to redevelop the city as a whole. The plan was to build four ‘hot-spots’ of new sports and support facilities around the city. A brand new highway ring road that encircles the city was also built, linking all the Olympic sites to the centre and alleviating traffic. The decadent area of Poblenou went through an extensive rejuvenation process that included transforming the non-descript stretch of Mediterranean coast into two miles of white sandy beaches. The whole area was connected to the city centre by an extension of the subway lines, which has also helped solve public transport issues in the city after the Games.

Barcelona had a clear and well thought-out new image development strategy and all developments were envisioned with this rebranding in mind. Historic buildings were restored and top international architects were hired (at great cost) to design new ones; Santiago Calatrava is behind the Montjuic Telecommunications Tower, Vittorio Gregotti designed the lavish Montjuic stadium and IM Pei created the International Trade Centre at the new port.

The city’s entire Olympic preparation process was carefully designed over two years before the bid was won in order to ensure their goals were achieved. Every new piece of infrastructure had a future role in the city’s life. The Olympic Village was sold off as apartment blocks, and local estate agents have reported a waiting list to buy property there. The port area, beach and marina are successful tourist attractions, the athlete’s polyclinic is a public GP surgery and the athletes’ former dining hall has been converted into a shopping centre. All of the sports facilities are now used by local teams or school children – no resources were spared in the transformation – but none have been wasted since.

Turisme de Barcelona, the local tourism board, capitalised on the city’s new image and promoted it relentlessly. It worked; Barcelona is now the fourth most popular tourism destination in Europe. In 2007 the Catalan capital was voted fourth best European city to do business in by estate agency Cushman & Wakefield. In a report for Bloomberg Businessweek; the city ranked 11th in the same survey in 1990.

Athens, 2004
If Barcelona and Beijing provided plenty of inspiration for the London 2012 Olympic Committee, the opposite is true for Athens. The spiritual home of the Olympiads missed out on the chance to host the centennial games in 1996 after the International Olympic Committee expressed concern about Greece’s ability to cope with the preparations for the event. Atlanta was chosen instead and Athens was given another eight years to prepare for when it was finally granted the honour.

It is estimated that Athens spent twice the amount stipulated in the original budget, bringing the total amount invested in the Games to  h9.4bn, though no official figures have ever been released. Where Barcelona had a stringent legacy plan, Athens didn’t seem to have had any idea at all. Since the Games moved on, as many as 21 of the 22 venues have been completely abandoned.

“We had some very good plans, well-laid plans,” insisted Athanasios Alevras, former deputy minister of culture in the run-up to the Games. “The idea was to build sites that could be then converted to benefit the lives of Atheneans afterwards. The Olympic Village was a great plan…We promised infrastructure and facilities that then weren’t delivered. The plans were not respected. Basically, it’s a disaster.”

Athens built an enormous Olympic Village complex in a derelict suburb 12 miles northeast of the historic centre. The original plan was to create an actual village by turning over the apartments to social housing after the games. Schools and hospitals would be built to serve the community but these never materialised. Most of the commercial establishments in the Village closed just months after the end of the Games. Today the apartment blocks have descended into disrepair, despite being partially occupied.

Perhaps even more worrying is the s500m the Greek government has claimed to have spent in the upkeep of the venues since the end of Games. Most of the facilities seem abandoned. Some have even had the piping and windows looted. The government insists there are plans to sell off the venues but there certainly has not been much interest.

As the Greek economy continues to plunge into a bottomless pit of debt and austerity, some Greeks are having a hard time getting to grips with the Olympic Legacy fiasco. “It was a wasted opportunity and one that sticks in the throat of many people. We are left with installations that are rotting away because we don’t even have the money to maintain them. A lot of entrepreneurs and property developers got rich very quickly,” said Sofia Sakorafa, an independent MP thrown out of the socialist PASOK party for voting against the controversial bailout package in 2010. “How can we begin to think about measures to repay our debt when we don’t know where the overspend came from and who is accountable for it?” she asked.

The 2004 Games were supposed to launch Athens as a worthy European capital; a good place to do business and a modern city. In fact, the opposite has happened. The financial crisis has raised even more suspicion of corruption, and the glib attitude towards the Olympic legacy despite the billionaire investment did more harm than good in terms of Athens’ image.

The 2004 Games were hugely unprofitable, in the months following the event the shortfall amounted to G50,000 for each Greek household, and the taxpayers are continuing to shoulder the burden to this day. Meanwhile some of Athens’ most deprived areas endure the burden of white elephant Olympic facilities amid stringent austerity measures, a  harsh reminder of the price they paid for the ‘honour’ of bringing the Olympics home. »
Beijing, 2008

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao said in 2008 that the Beijing Olympic Games, happening later that year, were a chance for the Chinese nation to show the world “how democratic, open, civilised, friendly and harmonious” it was. While Barcelona used the Games to renovate their industrial city, for Beijing it was all about revamping China’s international image.

No expense was spared to give Beijing the appearance of a modern, hi-tech, global capital. In fact the whole process was reported to have cost an unfathomable $43bn. China built a brand new Olympic Park, 37 stadiums and venues in Beijing, a sailing centre in Qingdao, football stadiums in four other cities as well as 59 training centres and infrastructure projects for the Paralympic Games. Beijing’s National Stadium, dubbed the ‘Bird’s Nest’ because of its intricate exterior shell, cost $450m and was designed by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei in partnership with renowned Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron.

Beijing was notorious for its chaotic transportation system and miles-long traffic jams. In the lead up to the Games the city invested $1.1bn on improving its subway system, completing a light-rail line and constructing and refurbishing hundreds of roads and avenues with high-tech traffic control systems. Improved public transport was also vital for the city’s goal of a ‘Green Olympics’.

The city worked exceptionally hard at improving its air quality before and during the games. A further $12bn was spent building water treatment plants, solid waste processing facilities, green belts and an entire fleet of environmentally friendly buses, amongst other things. In particular the entire Olympic Village was built as China’s largest green building complex and combines a variety of high and low-tech solutions to reduce energy and raise efficiency. The US Green Building Council awarded the Olympic Village a LEED gold certification; the largest building complex in the world to receive such a high rating, according to eco-tech website Treehugger.com.

More than in any other Olympic Capital since, the 2008 Games changed the face of Beijing and the city’s skyline is now peppered with modernistic creations by internationally renowned architects. It has been estimated that foreign tourism will increase between eight and nine percent annually in the decade to 2018.The Olympic Park has become a huge tourist destination in its own right. In 2011, five million more Chinese tourists visited the area than visited the Forbidden City. For the Chinese, the Park is a matter of national pride.

But Beijing has been less thoughtful then some of its Olympic predecessors in planning their Olympic legacy. Four years later, the traffic in the city has again halted in gridlock and air pollution is back to pre-Olympic levels. Even the planned shopping and leisure park around the Bird’s Nest is yet to break ground. Conversely, the Olympic Village has enjoyed monumental commercial success, with apartments in the eco-friendly complex selling for between $500,000 and $1m – almost twice the average property value in the area.

However, the whole Beijing Olympic process was marred in controversy because of allegations of human rights violations in clearing the sites for the new stadia. In fact, it is estimated that $200m was spent demolishing dilapidated housing and urban buildings to make way for grandiose sports arenas and countless high-tech new commercial buildings. In another high-profile controversy, Ai Wei Wei, the National Stadium’s creator, was put under house arrest in 2011 for criticising China’s notorious human rights violations. But despite the controversy, the gargantuan investment paid off: the 2008 Olympic Games have contributed around 2.5 percent of China’s overall economic growth annually.

London, 2012
The European economic climate has changed drastically in the seven years since London won its Olympic bid. The downturn has meant that London has had to revise some of its projects and re-think some of its Olympic Legacy goals. Notably, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the institution in charge of managing the Olympic assets post-Games, has been unsuccessful in negotiating tenants for the Olympic Stadium after the Games move on.

From the early stages of the process, London’s aim was to revitalise Stratford, the impoverished neighbourhood around the Olympic Park. The Olympic Village is central to this plan where half of the apartments will be converted into affordable homes, and the other half will be commercially marketed. The blocks are attractive buildings, arranged around gardens and commercial properties, though there is something distinctly reminiscent of the long-despised concrete housing estates of the 60s. In addition, the area around the Olympic Stadium will be re-christened as the Queen Elizabeth Park post-Olympics, and a series of major architectural firms are in the process of bidding for contracts to build 11,000 new houses.

A key point of Barcelona’s successful port area regeneration was it transformed a derelict part of the city into a desirable tourist destination, though that will be substantially harder to achieve in Stratford, an area notoriously lacking in attractive physical and cultural attributes. The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, designed by Anish Kapoor as London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, is the anchor that will ensure a steady flow of tourism to the area. At 377ft tall, the observation tower looms over London, bright red and contorted, a beacon of urban art. Like the tower, all of the new stadia and facilities have been designed by uber-architects, most notably Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre, a modern building inspired by “the fluid geometry of water in motion” according to the architect, and resembling a giant jelly-fish.

Cutting-edge architecture has become a fundamental part of revitalisation processes, because it will ensure that the attention sparked by the Olympic Games will endure once the party is over. Cities like Bilbao and Valencia have put themselves on the tourism and business map by investing in forward-thinking and attention-grabbing architectural projects. London has already done this successfully with buildings like Norman Foster’s Gherkin.

However, despite the £9.3bn investment so far, there have been substantial criticisms of some of London’s strategies. In particular, London has not invested nearly as much in transport as would have been appropriate for its size. Though the underground system has been expanded in the East End, and there have been road redevelopments, London is a city perpetually congested and its transport system operates full-to-capacity on any given day – without the additional burden of 11 million sports fans. Add to that the threat of transport union strikes mid-Games, and transport could be the Achilles heel of London 2012.

There is also the issue of modernising and gentrification. In the process of rejuvenating Stratford, London is creating yet another coveted and expensive neighbourhood. Real estate prices have shot up, and will likely continue to rise as the Olympic Park is converted into a green and leafy neighbourhood before 2014. Long-term residents are being out-priced and being forced to move away to cheaper parts of the city. This process of gentrification moves poverty away, but does not resolve it. London’s dream of a mixed-income, diverse and modern Stratford fell by the way-side when Olympic plans prioritised star-architects and luxury shopping centres in lieu of restoration and transport development.

But what does London stand to gain from the Olympic Games? It is already the second most popular tourist destination in the world, with over 14 million annual visitors, and the financial and business hub of Europe. The best that London can hope to achieve is a greater sense of national identity and community, a monumental accomplishment for a country in the throes of austerity and with little optimism for the future. Prime Minister David Cameron himself suggests that this summer will be a celebration of “what is already great about Britain”, in an effort to remind the world that it is still an open, strong and confident country, “moving forward to a better future.”

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