It the seems the Olympic Games are all about going higher, faster and stronger – and that’s just the bidding race. So do hosts get value for money?
The circus is coming to town. In its modern format the Olympic big top has rolled into 22 cities of various sizes and moved on again leaving some centres in a state of contented transformation and others in a blur of bemused turmoil. The FIFA World Cup has become equally huge with competing nations bidding furiously to bring a global audience to a whole country rather than simply a city.
In both events regeneration forms a huge plank of any successful bid but just as sport is all about winners and losers so there have been some delighted winning hosts and also some desperate losing ones too.
This year London hosts the games and will discover soon after the circus moves on if it is awash with world class venues and Olympic dollars or straddled with a massive debt and a herd of white elephants. The Olympic legacy is now common parlance, although the legacy differs enormously between cities. Athens was left broke while Beijing and Barcelona became internationally recognised landmarks on the back of the competition.
The World Cup legacy is slightly different and is worth examining first as there is probably more a requirement to deliver stadia, infrastructure and hotels rather than provide one gigantic regeneration scheme of the kind that we are seeing in the East End of London for the 2012 Olympiad.
And indeed it is only relatively recently that massive spending has become a requirement for World Cup venues. Way back in 1966 when England hosted the tournament no new stadia were built, existing grounds – almost entirely from the upper tier of the then Football league, with the exception of the old White City athletic stadium and Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park – were simply upgraded as necessary.
Contrast that with the 2010 finals held in South Africa where around $4bn (€3.1bn) was spent improving roads, building new stadia and getting decent infrastructure systems in place. And while the Government was spending that there was also huge private investment in the creation of new hotels to accommodate tourists.
Soccer City in Johannesburg, where 90% of the 1987 stadium was demolished and redeveloped, has provided an iconic centre not only for football in South Africa but also for non sporting events.
Sibongile Mazibuko, executive director of the City of Johannesburg‘s 2010 office, says the stadium’s broadcasting facilities are a huge asset to radio and TV companies, while its private suites and 200-seat auditorium are perfect for hosting conferences and events.
“South Africa has not had a venue to house 100,000 spectators at one go, and Soccer City provides that for national events – for the state of the nation, the inauguration of heads of state, the bidding farewell of heroes of South Africa,” she says. “It is a facility that will be used to the maximum.”
Yet probably the biggest achievement of World Cup 2010 was that South Africa simply showed that it could deliver when for some months beforehand there had been press forecasts of unfinished stadia and bloodbaths as impoverished Africans attacked affluent overseas football fans.
For all the money spent, for all the new hotels and stadia there are still six million people in South Africa living in tin shacks without water or electricity. Even an event as big as a World Cup can only get you so far. Japan’s gigantic infrastructure investment for the 2002 World Cup barely shifted its sluggish economy while four years later the Olympic Games in Athens turned into a disaster.
“We didn’t find a plan for post-Olympic development of the venues,” says Greek politician Fani Palli-Petralia, who served as both Minister for Employment and Social Protection ans as Minister for Tourism. “When a city gets the games it should make a business plan for big changes and then decide what the country needs for the day after the Olympics. This did not happen.”
And in football crazy Greece many of the stadia for sports such as tennis and handball have simply become derelict. Of 22 new venues, built as part of a staggering overall cost of $15bn, 21 now lie vacant and vandalised.
“The problem is that Olympic cities have got to be big enough to support the games”, says Katie Kopec, international director of Jones Lang LaSalle who has made a specialist subject out of analysing the burdens and benefits of hosting an Olympiad.
Kopec cites Beijing and Barcelona as the two big recent Olympic success stories, both of which having proved a huge draw for tourists during and after the Olympics. ‘”The Beijing Olympics was a case of China ‘coming out’. It would never have been on anyone’s list of places to visit yet it was the games that brought it to global attention. And it is big enough to absorb things afterwards which Athens never was.”
So what about London and 2012? Despite having a logo which has mystified many, the programme is not only on time but is set to regenerate the whole of the Lea Valley, one of London’s poorest areas.
The advent of Westfield’s Stratford City shopping centre was a massive pre-Olympic boost, “a huge addition to Middle England” is how Kopek describes it. Now the Olympics could usher in 3,000 new jobs, $110m added economic growth and up to $777m generated through additional tourism. All against a backdrop of the worst recession the world has seen since the 1930s.
“This is a fantastic advert for the UK,” says Kopec, “and one that many UK companies should well be able to export after the games.” Her enthusiasm is infectious when she talks of improved rail access, restored waterways in the Lea valley in a spectacular urban park, green methods of tackling landfill, new schools, and on top of it all the building of 30,000 new homes that will include some 35% affordable accommodation as well as low density family housing.
A once tired industrial wasteland could provide London with a vibrant, accessible east side, something it has not for almost a century. Let the games commence!
Image: Abigail Sylvester