Rethinking Olympic Infrastructure

As the cost and complexity of delivering the Olympic Games arcs ever upward, the global urban policy community and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are searching for ways to rethink their scale. By almost every measure, the obligations of hosting the games have multiplied. In the century following the “rebirth” of the modern Olympic Games, the number of sports represented on the Olympic program expanded from nine in Athens 1896 to 28 in London 2012; over the same period, the number of medal events grew from 43 to 302. As more countries joined the Olympic Movement, the number of athletes participating rose from 241 to over 10,500. In tandem with this growth, the number of coaches, referees, judges, and operational staff increased, as did the “Olympic family” made up of officials from the IOC, the International Federations (IFs), the National Olympic Committees (NOCs), and the Organizing Committees of the Olympic Games (OCOGs), as well as a ballooning contingent of sponsors, media and broadcast professionals, and local volunteers. Rounding out the program are the spectators, whose numbers were estimated to approach 11 million over the duration of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in London 2012.

A form of Olympic sprawl now accompanies this burgeoning Olympic program, leading to changes in the size and composition of infrastructure required to accommodate the games. Over the past century, building for the summer games has evolved from a single stadium to large complexes encompassing multiple venues, as well as housing for thousands of athletes and members of the media, ceremonial parks, broadcast and press centres, all connected by transportation facilities capable of moving hundreds of thousands of spectators each day. For the first Olympiad in Athens 1896, only seven venues were needed, including a renovation of an ancient stadium, and other existing facilities such as the Athens Tennis Club and the Bay of Phaleron for swimming events. Over the past fifty years, the number of sports venues used by host cities averages just over 30 facilities, with 38 venues in use for Barcelona 1992, 29 venues for Sydney 2000, and 31 for London 2012.

In providing Olympic infrastructure, host cities are contractually obligated first and foremost to the technical requirements of a set of main stakeholders. These include the IOC, particularly its executive board, the International Federations (IFs) who govern individual sports and their sub-disciplines, the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) who sponsor and represent the athletes from their country; and the local organising committee for the Olympic Games (OCOGs) who govern the delivery of the games, and manage relationships among these parties, including the host city and other levels of government for a specific Olympiad. These stakeholders, particularly the IFs, can determine whether existing facilities pass technical muster, and in so doing, have a good degree of influence on the amount of new construction required and the cost of venues. Depending on how ticket and broadcast revenues are shared, different stakeholders can seek to influence the spectator capacity of a given venue, rendering existing facilities with small fixed seating capacities as unusable for the games.

The IOC, for its part, is aware of the increasing scale of the summer games, and the impact on host cities. Colloquially referred to as concerns over “gigantism” in IOC documents, the IOC has led efforts to reign in the scope of the Olympic program. For example, the IOC has limited the number of sports to 28, the number events to approximately 300, and the number of athletes to approximately 10,500. If form follows function, then ideally, limiting the scope of the program should result in a smaller footprint. Again, the IOC, with input from the IFs and NOCs, provides prospective host cities with some guidance about the expected number of venues, capacity requirements, and planning dimensions, based on the 28/301/10,500 formula. For example, in the late 1990s, the guidelines for the minimum surface area of the games estimated a total footprint of approximately 671 hectares or 1660 acres.

The import and impact of this theoretical minimum footprint in part depends on the size of the host city, and the extent of its “city proper”. In Barcelona, a comparatively small city with a surface area of 10,360 hectares in the city proper, this 671 hectare footprint represents approximately 7 per cent of its total area. In a large city, such as Beijing with a surface area of 75,109 hectares, the footprint shrinks to comparatively miniscule 1 per cent. Of course, what is required is often different from what is built. This minimum Olympic “template” is net of elements such the large-scale public spaces and ceremonial green spaces that are often included as part of the main complex designs, nor do they include parking areas or allowances for transportation facilities. In Beijing, the total footprint of the 2008 Olympic Games is estimated at approximately 3,400 hectares –or 5 per cent of its total land area – including 1,215 hectares for the Olympic Green, 680 hectares for the Olympic Forest Park, and 80 hectares for the Olympic Village. Albeit an imperfect metric, since some facilities are located within the city proper and others are not, it remains clear that if the average footprint of the Olympic Games and its attendant infrastructure averages around 5 per cent of its host’s total surface area, it is a significant use of urban land. Of course, location can trump scale, particularly when Olympic facilities are sited in areas with more important and strategic long-term uses.

Given the objective of reducing the scale of the Olympic Games as a means to reducing its cost and complexity, it follows that an important step is to rethink the size and composition of its infrastructure. Sports venues are the primary determinant of the scale of the Olympic footprint in an equation where the number of venues is a function of the number of sports, disciplines (branches of sports), events, and participants. The constraint of the three-week duration often makes it necessary to provide multiple versions of a single venue type –proposals to extend the length of the games have not succeeded. For example, several indoor facilities (including gymnasiums, arenas, and halls) are required to accommodate events such as gymnastics, fencing, judo, and weightlifting. Similarly, more than one pool is typically needed to accommodate the four disciplines within the sport of aquatics: swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming. The type of sport to be accommodated also influences venue provision, particularly as the Olympic program has diversified to accommodate new sports and disciplines, such as BMX cycling, canoe/kayak slalom, and beach volleyball.

Whether these sports venues are overlaid onto existing facilities, built new, or provided temporarily, also influences the scale and cost of hosting the games. Among recent host cities, the average number of existing venues used is just over 50 per cent, though in most cases these existing venues required modifications to accommodate Olympic events. Temporary facilities are also gaining favour, particularly for outdoor, grass-based sports with lower spectator demand, such as archery, shooting, and equestrian events. They are attractive primarily because of their cost basis, estimated at approximately one-half to one-third less than building new. Theoretically, the use of temporary facilities also allows host cities to make choices about matching the need for permanent venues with local sports preferences. Less direct, but perhaps more important, temporary facilities eliminate the spatial opportunity cost of occupying urban land for low demand land uses. Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Rio de Janeiro 2016 all make use of temporary facilities. Rio plans to use 35 competition venues, of which 7 are intended to be temporary, and 18 are already existing, though many were built for previous mega-sporting events over the past decade, including the Pan Am Games in 2007 and FIFA World Cup in 2014.

Viewed from the perspective of host cities, then, reducing the cost of delivering the Olympic Games is very much a function of the scale of its infrastructure, particularly the sports venues. As the cost of providing these “Olympic infrastructures” spirals to unprecedented levels, widespread criticism has emerged concerned that host city spending outpaces –and in some cases replaces –public investment in traditional projects such as highways, schools, and hospitals. Public perceptions about the cost of the Olympic Games is confused by the peculiarities of Olympic accounting, where most games are announced to “break even” from an operations perspective: That is, games-time revenues through ticketing, sponsorships, and broadcast revenues typically exceed games-time operations expenses such as accommodation, food and beverage, transportation, and security. Capital expenditures are far greater than the games-time operating budget, and include spending on sports venues, Olympic villages, media facilities and so forth, and are accounted for separately from the reckoning that determines the financial success or failure of a particular games. Moreover, these costs are the sole responsibility of host cities, and host governments must guarantee their provision as part of the host city contract.

In this context of increasing scale, cost and complexity, why do cities want to host the Olympics? For most aspiring host cities, investment in Olympic infrastructure is often viewed as means to leveraging the games for broader economic growth and urban redevelopment. The appeal of building Olympic infrastructure lays in its potential to improve the city’s brand image, and to stimulate new private investment that in turn fosters job creation, generates new tax revenues, and revitalizes targeted urban areas. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has embraced this notion that host city investments in Olympic infrastructures should be positioned as part of a broader urban agenda, through widespread rhetoric that asks its bidding cities to create an Olympic “legacy”. Many host cities, hoping to impress the IOC during the bid process, and to capitalise on the accelerated timeline and high energy of Olympic efforts, have bundled games infrastructure within larger urban strategies. Yet the promise of the Olympic Games as a catalyst of widespread urban development has routinely fallen short, leaving the IOC and its host cities under pressure to better balance the costs and benefits associated with building infrastructure for the games. London 2012 positioned the games within an extraordinarily effort to redevelop the Lower Lea Valley in East London, a strategy whose impacts will take years to fully comprehend.

Host cities can reduce the cost and scale of delivering the Olympic Games by more carefully monitoring the Olympic program for policies that imply a larger number of venues, or an increasing number of specialized venues. Host cities might also coalesce to have their interests represented in Olympic program deliberations, and to share information and knowledge more directly. Reducing costs also requires careful choices about new venues over existing, or permanent venues over temporary. The IOC, for its part, also has a strong interest in recalibrating the infrastructure required of host cities, since the viability of its mission, and its political power, is predicated on strong candidate pool. Over the past twenty years, the quantity of host cities bidding for the games has not markedly decreased, but the composition of cities in the bid pool now includes a larger proportion of cities located in emerging markets as well as smaller cities, as more established world cities forgo the opportunity to serve as Olympic host cities, in part based on increasing financial and political risk. To support the long-term viability of the Olympic Games, efforts to recalibrate the scale of this Olympic urbanism, and to reduce the obligations of host cities with regard to the provision of Olympic infrastructure should be an ongoing priority of the IOC and the global urban policy community.

Judith Grant Long is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her new book project, Olympic Urbanism: Rome to Rio investigates the impact and influence of the Olympic Games in host cities, and analyzes current strategies aimed at reducing the scope of the event, drawing on extensive field research in fifteen host cities from Rome 1960 to Rio de Janeiro 2016.