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Let the games begin
It is now less than a month to go for the start of the biggest sporting spectacle of all time. Costing the British exchequer close to £10 billion (Rs 56, 800 crore) at a time of austerity, the 2012 Summer Games is far more than a sports competition. It is a game changer in every sense. Regenerating the East End, a rundown cluster of neighborhoods till some years earlier, the Olympics have already changed the face of London for all time to come. But is the change all for the better? Will men and women displaced as a result of Olympic construction share the same positive sentiment? Does the regeneration mean the East End has lost all its distinctiveness and unique identity and is now a corporate maze of offices and shopping malls? Is development synonymous with building malls and high-end housing, much to the dismay of the original inhabitants of East London? Can Sebastian Coe and his team deliver on all the promises made and can London stand up to match the organizational success of Beijing 2008? Will the US match China for the gold medal count or will the Chinese dominance, overwhelming in Beijing, continue ? Finally, will London 2012 be the watershed that Indian Olympic sports have been waiting for decades?
The sporting spectacle will be accompanied by a cultural pageant. The London festival which is under way includes multiple events. From Shakespeare productions and an interaction with former Olympic champion Michael Johnson to more offbeat events like an evening organised by members of the Pierre de Coubertin family, there's something for everyone in the lead-up to the Olympics.
All of the buildup events being staged in London also draw attention to the fact that mega-sporting events are intimately connected - for better or for worse - with the future of great cities. There is a real attempt on the part of the London civic authorities to give people the impression that London is indeed the favoured destination this summer. Mega spectacles allow for this scale of world projection, one of the major reasons why the world's greatest cities line up to host the Olympics despite the staggering costs and massive disruption.
This is why, in October 2009, right in the middle of a high-stakes Afghan policy review and a contentious health policy logjam that may well have defined his Presidency, Barack Obama flew to Copenhagen to campaign for an Olympic Games in Chicago. This is also why Brazil's President Lula de Silva proclaimed that that he "could now die in peace" after Rio won the 2016 Olympics bid.
Robert Scott, chairman of Manchester's 2000 Olympic bid, aptly summed up the terrible anxiety for hosting such events, comparing it to the rigours of the Olympian marathon. As he put it, "It is a commonly held view that the toughest Olympic event is the marathon... (However) there is another Olympic event (the bidding process) which makes the marathon look gentle. It has only a handful of competitors, lasts many years, is fought out in every continent of the world, and ends with the presentation of just one medal. "
Using sport to fast-track urban development is a well-established phenomenon, with the hosting of mega sports events being looked upon as a prestige project. The 1984 Los Angeles Games, with a profit of £215 million, and the 1992 Barcelona Games, which resulted in unprecedented urban regeneration, are cases in point. Yet, such initiatives may often end up all wrong as had happened in Montreal in 1976 or more recently in Sydney at the turn of the millennium.
The relationship between bid cities and mega sporting events has always been complex. For example, the slogan, "We want bread not circuses", raised by Toronto inhabitants, derailed the city's Olympic bid in 1996. Men and women from the city, smarting under the financial toll of the 1976 Olympics on Montreal, were opposed to it from the very beginning. Montreal resulted in a loss of £ 692 million, and Toronto's activists turned it into a popular movement questioning the prudence behind the mounting of an Olympic bid.
Four years prior to Montreal, Munich sustained a loss of £178 million in hosting the Olympic Games. The question then is: Do mega sports events contribute significantly to host city development and do they provide an opportunity for true urban regeneration? Has Beijing, having spent a mammoth $42 billion (Rs 2. 4 lakh crore) for example, benefited from hosting the Games in the last four years? Will the facilities constructed for staging the summer Games in London turn into white elephants in the not too distant future or can they be harnessed for the welfare of the city's inhabitants ? Obviously, the answers vary depending on who you ask. But there's little doubt that once most mega events are over, organisers are faced with questions like: "What will happen to the newly constructed stadiums in future?" "Will the money spent turn out to be good investments in the end?" or "How will the investment impact upon the ordinary taxpayer?" While it is impossible to provide definitive answers to these questions in the short term, past experience suggests that the London organisers have their task cut out. Here's a look at Games impact on host cities in history, evidence the London organizers will do well to take into account as they prepare for the most important 25 days of their lives.
The direct co-relation between host cities and Olympic Games can be traced back to the building of the White City Olympic Stadium in London itself in 1908. Yet it wasn't until the end of the World War II that the Games impact on urban regeneration turned out to be profound. And it was only with the Los Angeles Games of 1984 that Games spend scaled figures beyond the remit of the economies of smaller nation states.
Before Los Angeles, Olympic organization was in total disarray. Montreal was a disaster in Canadian history and the city needed almost three decades to pay off the debt incurred in 1976. Munich 1972, too, wasn't an organizational success. With a $200 million loss to go with the political violence, Munich had not done much to inspire confidence among future bidders.
LOS ANGELES 1984 |
Los Angeles, by making a profit of £ 215 million for the first time in decades, marked a watershed in Olympic history. Unlike in recent years, Los Angeles was the only candidate city in 1984 and the lessons from Munich and Montreal had seriously impacted upon national/city intentions to host the Games. The LA Games, unlike all the competitions preceding it, was almost entirely privately funded and marked a new era in Olympic organization. Also, with 24 of the 31 venues already in existence, Los Angeles had a marked advantage over others.
SEOUL 1988 |
Seoul had a tumultuous lead up to the Games in view of the change of guard in Korea. Organizers successfully re-developed areas of low quality housing and ensured integration between the city's central business district and the slums, which occupied a vast land mass south of the Han River. The organizers took over the slum, helped relocate the existing dwellers to better housing and developed a 60 acre sports complex and a 63 acre athletes village on the site.
BARCELONA 1992 |
With careful planning, the city serves as a perfect model of what the Olympics can do if facilities constructed are properly harnessed for the city's development. The underlying philosophy of the Barcelona Olympic Project, as Miguel Moragas suggests, was to "ensure that the Games were decentralized". Barcelona decided to share the games with as many subsidiary host cities as possible.
Four primary sites were selected - Montjuic played host to the opening and closing ceremonies. The precinct of Diagonal, which has the largest concentration of private sports facilities in the city, was the other area. Poblenou, an area full of derelict warehouses and unused railway facilities, was revitalized with apartments, a new sewage system, a ring road, a new marina (Olympic harbour) along the 5. 2 km strip.
ATLANTA 1996 |
The multitude of problems at Atlanta prompted observers to describe the city as one in "complete chaos" during the Games. Trouble began from the time Greece refused to hand over the Olympic flame to the US. Greek nationalists criticized US attempts at commercializing the games. Yet, the expected boost to tourism never happened at Atlanta, jobs weren't generated for the economically underprivileged and by the time the Games finally started, most projects geared at the Olympics appeared to be non-starters.
SYDNEY 2000 |
The Sydney legacy isn't positive either. The Sydney Olympic Park, once a symbol of Australian pride, today stands derelict. Getting to the Park, some 25 km from the city's business district, is an ordeal. The planned link between Darwin Harbour, the Sydney CBD and Paramatta was not accomplished and ordinary taxpayers continue to bear the brunt of this investment. Real estate prices in Sydney remain high despite the meltdown. Even as a tourist attraction, the Park has little currency and it remains an example of how things can go wrong while trying to use sport as a module for urban regeneration.
ATHENS 2004 |
The current Greek economic crisis can be traced back to the Athens Games of 2004. With news of underpreparedness emanating from all over, the world had braced itself for chaos. Everybody knew it would be rough. Since Greek elections were held just months before the Games and resulted in a change in government, problems were only natural. While Athens did well to stand up to the world's scrutiny, the long term legacy has turned out to be negative, causing the Euro Zone and the rest of the world much heartburn.
BEIJING 2008 |
While the Greeks staged the 2004 Olympics with a budget of $ 15 billion, it was only a third of what the Chinese put into the Games. An unmatched spectacle, there's little doubt that London will find it exceedingly difficult to equal it. At the same time, it is this massive spending that is now causing the Beijing organizers serious nightmares. Growing criticism that the $ 450 million Bird's Nest Stadium is fast turning into a white elephant has forced the authorities to convert it into a mall full of shops and entertainment outlets. None of the other facilities built for the Games have been adequately used since the Games.
LONDON 2012 - HAVE THE LESSONS BEEN LEARNT? |
From the experiences of the multiple host cities, it is evident that a positive Games impact will eventually depend on the city's ability to market itself as a key tourist destination following the event and also on its ability to harness the facilities constructed for the Games for its residents.
Further, the real legacy of the 2012 Games is linked to eradicating the social and economic problems of East London - lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities, health inequalities and the lack of available and affordable housing for local people. Set against this benchmark it can be suggested that the organisers have done well so far. East London, a visit to the neighborhood demonstrates, bears no resemblance to what it was when construction started in 2007.
Finally, the London organizers have shown great improvisation in their choice of venues. Especially interesting is the choice of Lords for archery. Imagine Deepika Kumari winning an Olympic medal at cricket's mecca! It will be fascinating for every Indian to see her step onto the podium with the tri colour going up during the medal ceremony at Lord's. Maybe the MCC will subsequently want an honours board added to the Lords museum, which will include the names of the Olympic medal winners and Deepika's name will be etched alongside all of cricket's greats including our very own Rahul Dravid.
Or will they? Speaking to a number of MCC members, I got two very different and radically opposed points of view. While the official MCC stand is that the Olympics will help showcase cricket to a far bigger world audience, the unofficial view is that the "Olympics may cause the Lords outfield some real serious damage". With the England versus South Africa Test match due to begin on August 16, there are many who feel the Olympics is a risk that should have been avoided.
Similar concerns can be heard at SW19, where Wimbledon is currently on. Can the grass courts, used and abused for two weeks, be readied again for the Olympics? Never has it happened in the history of Wimbledon that a second tournament has followed the grand slam within a mere 20 days of its conclusion.
While there are last-minute concerns with venues, security, a possible overspend, the refurbished transport network, Heathrow's ability to cope with the huge number of people descending into London starting early July, a possible negative impact on the environment and the Dow problem, there's little doubt that come 27 July, excitement will have reached fever pitch in London. For seven long years since winning the bid in 2005, outbidding Paris in a thrilling contest in Singapore, London has been waiting for its tryst with sporting history.
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