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Olympics, events, and urban regeneration

By Brian Doucet
August 12, 2008

The Beijing Olympics are now upon us. They are an international celebration of sport, with the world’s best athletes coming together and all the world’s eyes fixed on them. But of course, the Olympics are far more than sport. It is also business, with billions of dollars at stake. For cities that bid for, and, if they are lucky enough, win the right to host the games, the stakes are just as high as for the athlete’s going for gold.
Large-scale events like the Olympics can serve as an economic catalyst for cities the same way that large urban regeneration projects endeavour to do. And we are not just talking about sporting events: Expos, World’s Fairs and Cultural Capitals have all be explicitly used by cities as a way of attracting more investment, and projecting a new image to both their own residents, and a wider audience of outsiders such as tourists or investors.
One of the best examples of this is the city of Glasgow. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the city suffered from both a poor reputation, and a lagging economy that left it as one of Britain’s most economically deprived cities. The industries that built the city, namely shipbuilding, were in decline, and there was little to replace the jobs and investment that had been lost. What was Glasgow’s response? Among other things it was to host the European Capital of Culture, which it did in 1990. Since its inception in 1985, the Capital of Culture had been held in Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, West Berlin and Paris. To most people, the Scottish city would appear to be on a different cultural level than its predecessors. But Glasgow used its hosting of the event to launch a new image of the city, one based on arts, culture and leisure, rather than industry. It was the first city to use this event in this way (rather than simply a celebration of culture). Glasgow’s strategy was deemed to be a success in many eyes; other former industrial cities have also hosted the event since Glasgow (Thessaloniki, 1997; Rotterdam, 2001; Genoa, 2004; and Liverpool, 2008).
Using events like this has become a strategy of economic and urban regeneration for many places; it is one of the major reasons why so many cities bid for major international events. For the Olympics, London’s successful 2012 bid emphasised the role that the Games would have in regenerating the deprived East End of the city. The notion is that the investment triggered by the Olympics will serve as a catalyst for billions more in that part of the city.
However, this strategy has been heavily criticised. Even if they are successful, the shelf life of such windfalls tends to be rather short; usually until another cities follows with something bigger or better. Other criticisms illustrate that such events lead to a greater polarisation of the city, both in spatial and social forms. Also, the image that is being portrayed by the event or festival may not necessarily correspond with the reality on the ground, or how residents themselves see their city. Perhaps the largest criticism is the cost it takes to bid for, and host such events; even making a bid for an Olympics or World’s Fair can be expensive, with no guarantee that it will garner results. The lofty aspirations of urban regeneration in London’s 2012 bid have been placed on the backburner due both to a change in mayor and the spiralling cost of hosting the games.
What is clear is that many cities have little choice but to bid for these events. In the ultimate game of ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ cities continually try to outdo each other. But for how long a city remains at the ‘top’ is not certain. Even if the Beijing Games are a smashing success both athletically and economically, how long will it be before they fade into our more distant memories?