The famed Maracana Stadium has gone to waste | VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Post-Olympic Abandonment

What abandoned Olympic venues look like today

Bringing the Olympics to your country, whether in summer or winter, is a costly business. Just ask the recent hosts. The games set back Sochi $51 billion, London $11.6 billion and Beijing at least $40 billion. Not insignificant sums.

We wondered: What happens to Olympic venues and infrastructure after the closing ceremony, once the athletes and media have packed up and returned home? Are the Olympics an opportunity for long-term infrastructure resilience for the host cities?

More than any other two-week period, the Olympic Games result in choices, plans, and projects that can affect a city for generations — for the better and, more often, for the worse.

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Since the post-Olympics experience is unique for each host city, let’s look at how three recent host cities have made use of their venues.

It’s hard to believe that Rio de Janeiro hosted the Summer Olympics just six months ago. Today, the Olympic Village has turned into a ghost town, and many of the venues have fallen into disrepair.

One practice pool has turned orange, and the structure next to it is quite literally falling apart | Pilar Olivares/Reuters
Inside the Aquatic Center, the pool is drained except for some unpleasant standing water | Pilar Olivares/Reuters

The Olympic Park is a ghost town; sleek sports arenas without events, deserted before they were even broken in, and well-tended flower gardens, free from pedestrian wear-and-tear.

The media center was recently demolished and is now a health hazard | Mario Tama/Getty

Some children use an Olympic monument as a playground | AP

Even still, the situation in Rio’s favelas is much, much worse | Getty

In fact, the globe is littered with the rusting husks of former Olympic venues. From stadiums to ski jumps, landscapes around the world are covered with the remnants of forgotten contests.

The hotel near the ski jump in Sarajevo | APAP PHOTO/AMEL EMRIC

Seats for reporters at the main swimming pool for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens remain desolate | Kyodo News/Newscom

But at least you get a lasting sporting legacy right? A world class infrastructure that provides generations a chance to get active? Not always.

“The arenas are beautiful,” Wagner Tolvai said, walking inside the park with his girlfriend Patricia Silva. “But it’s all abandoned, everything has stopped. Nobody is here.”

Olympics researchers Stephen Essex and Brian Chalkley argue that host cities should think of their potential urban legacy as something they need and could achieve even without the Olympics. “The Olympic legacy is most effective and pronounced where it goes with the grain of wider urban policies and developments,” they write.

Summary of issues in the use of mega-events as a strategy for urban regeneration and renewal

A. PROS

  • New development needed to stage the mega-event is encouraged, including new sports, conference and/or exhibition space
  • New development can be directed to derelict industrial brownfield sites
  • Other development to facilitate the smooth running of the mega-event is stimulated, such as new airport capacity, new road and rail links, housing, and tourist accommodation
  • The event attracts considerable ‘free’ publicity, television coverage and media exposure to create a new image and identity (‘symbolic capital’) for the host city
  • New inward investment, both economic and tourist, is generated
  • New ‘social capital’ in the form of new skills and organisations are created from staging the event (knowledge creation)
  • A more entrepreneurial approach to planning is encouraged
  • Development is ‘fast-tracked’ by the deadline of the event

B. CONS

  • Problems in establishing a realistic budget many years in advance of the event
  • Public expenditure is used to subsidise private accumulation (eg. public spending diverted to pay for event, increased local taxes)
  • Difficulty to establish a robust cost-benefit analysis: bias in evaluations, attribution problems, counterfactual problems, different perspectives
  • Economic impacts can be transitory (intermezzo)
  • Opportunity costs: other forms of investment can be postponed or eliminated by staging a mega-event
  • While it is being held, the event can create a ‘crowding out’ effect (tourists discouraged from visiting)
  • New development promotes gentrification (exclusion of working class in favour of middle class)
The emergence of mega-events as a tool of urban and regional public policy in the post-industrial city (based on Essex and Chalkley, 2004, p. 203)

Summary of good and bad practice in mega-event urban policy

A. GOOD PRACTICE

  • Integrating the staging of the mega-event as part of a long-term development plan
  • Adopting strategic planning with legacy integrated throughout the development stages
  • Infrastructural investment justified by the geography of the city and future growth
  • Single agency led development (public/private sector partnership)
  • Legacy agency
  • Creation of local support and consensus for the event
  • Research: to ground bid in realism and evaluation of effectiveness
  • Build temporary if no permanent viable legacy can be demonstrated

B. BAD PRACTICE

  • Assuming that successful strategies from elsewhere can be automatically transferred
  • Decision-making can be undemocratic and irrational creating over-ambitious plans, which are too prestige driven and expensive
  • Raising unrealistic expectations of event outcomes
  • Delegation of responsibility for the event to different agencies at different stages in its planning and development
  • Creating mistrust between local leaders and citizens over the event and its impacts
The changing infrastructural impact of the Summer and Winter Games, 1896–2006

From within London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, there’s hardly a direction you can look without seeing a crane or construction site. Buildings are rising all around and within the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics — from mixed-use buildings to office complexes to luxury housing to so-called artist’s lofts that are actually just more luxury housing. Though Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union has slashed housing values, the development boom that’s been underway is not especially surprising for a high demand city like London. It is, however, something of a sea change for this specific part of London, the long-depressed district of Stratford. It’s in the borough of Newham, where poverty and unemployment have historically ranked among the highest in all of England. The Olympics have kickstarted a developmental rebirth of sorts in East London.

Aerial view of the Olympic Park looking south west towards London 2012 | EG Focus
London is novel among recent Olympic hosts in that its plan for the Olympics was focused primarily on what would happen after the games.

The fast-forward urbanism of the Olympics is fraught with potential missteps, and they can be seen in every recent host city. The Olympics can catalyze and accelerate large-scale urban projects, but there’s also a danger in using an event with a very tight timeline and short window of activity to bring about projects that can affect cities for decades. For all the momentum they can bring, the Olympic Games are a rather crude tool for urban development. If they become the tool of choice, the cities using them should proceed carefully. Perhaps the only conclusive evidence from previous Olympic hosts is that the results will be complicated. But if they’re planned from the start to serve the needs of the cities that host them, there will at least be a chance that the Olympics leave behind something more useful than debts and empty stadiums.


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