April 28, 2014

Warning – 2: Olympics as War (Or, What Vancouver escaped)

Two years to go to the Rio Olympics, and as seems customary for the Summer Games, the bad news is escalating faster than the construction: “The World Cup and Olympics threaten to overwhelm Rio,” in The Guardian.

The city is now desperately behind schedule for its 2016 Olympics – one insider put it at 10% ready, where London was 60% ready at the same stage. …

RioThe nearest parallel to the Olympics nowadays is probably a war, an outburst of patriotic fervour, fathered by mild mendacity out of public expenditure. Criticism is suppressed. Medals tables are listed like battle honours. Home contestants are “heroes”. Winners are showered with state baubles and losers stripped of grants.

Some of Rio’s more cynical citizens even give this parallel a sort of welcome. They hope the Olympics might discipline a lethargic city bureaucracy, defeating the nay-sayers as deadlines fall due and yielding at least some projects of lasting usefulness. They are pleased that Rio is now the focus of world attention, with resulting self-criticism. The favelas are crawling with academics and camera crews as never before, as if waiting for them to explode for the World Cup and the Games.

This could suggest a new phenomenon, the mega-event as the critical mover in cities where the politics of urban renewal has seized up. Whether such a trauma is the best way of ordering any society is another matter. Any city that can blow billions of dollars on a fortnight’s party and not repair public services such as Rio’s has its governance seriously awry.

Vancouver avoided the worst two results: over-expenditure on an extravagant festival with few economic gains, and unneeded structures that left no legacy.  Still, I don’t think the Games had that much up-side domestic benefit: It didn’t announce our coming-of-age (Expo did that) or make us any more or less desirable than we already were.  We got some much-needed infrastructure, notably the Canada Line and the Convention Centre – but they would likely have happened anyway, though not as quickly.

The Olympics came, they went, and our city life went on much as before.  That’s not going to be the case in Rio.  The question is whether the consequences will change the Olympics.

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  1. Barcelona is probably the poster child for using mega-events like the 1992 Olympics to generate both civic pride and physical/social improvements. I believe this approach is even included in the Barcelona Regeneration Model. They may have been too successful, as your recent posting about the impacts of tourism on livability and social cohesion attests.