I am browsing through some spectacular images captured by a photographer friend who is documenting the infrastructure that China built for the Olympics.

I wonder.

What is olympics really about?
Sure, but only to a certain extent.
Olympics are in fact a lot more about city transformation and branding than just pure sports.
The “greatest show on earth” offers city leadership an incredible platform to showcase their cities given that the event comes with unwavering attention of the world media, businesses, advertisers and billions of spectators from over 200 countries. Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley stance after being selected as America’s bid city for 2016 Olympics confirms this motivation; “What a great story to be told around the world. To bring hundreds of thousands of people into our city. Four billion people watching TV all about Chicago, interviewing young people and families in this city. That is the excitement.” He said. This ambition to raise the city’s profile in a world stage also often sets the tone for grand visions to transform the city dramatically.
Recent host cities have channelled Olympics as a way of stimulating large scale urban renewal and reshaping the city’s image. Some of these cities have managed to use Olympics as catalyst for more enduring benefits. Besides being counted among the most successful games, the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona also stirred successful city rejuvenation and built an appealing imagery that attracts people from all over the world even today. The $8 billion infrastructure spent during the 1992 games transformed decrepit neighbourhoods into places that drew visitors. The Communication tower that was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s for the games still remains Barcelona’s most distinct icons. The 2000 Sydney Olympics also catapulted the city into the world tourist map. The year following the games saw an increase of almost 11 % in total visitor arrivals into the city.
No other host city has engaged in this idea of symbolism and revival more than the recent host city and the Chinese capital of Beijing. The 2008 games are touted as the most expensive games in history with an investment of a whopping $40 billion on new venues and energy, transportation and water supply projects. The architecture of the buildings built for the games are nothing if not “eye-popping” and clearly designed to be instantly memorable and iconic. Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker Magazine’s architecture critic wrote on the Beijing Olympic building frenzy, “The Olympic Green—the National Stadium, by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and the National Aquatics Center, by the Australian firm PTW Architects—are as innovative as any architecture on the planet, marvels of imagination and engineering that few countries would have the nerve or the money to attempt.” He opined. The jury is still out on what the Olympics will mean to the Beijing and China in the longer term.
The upcoming host city of London has already promoted the games as a means of massive urban renewal with the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who was in office when London secured the bid, having promised a “lasting and sustainable legacy”. The London 2012 Olympic park has been positioned around the poorer Stratford area in the east of the city. Post game plans include the conversion of the Olympic park into what is said to be “Europe’s largest urban parks in 150 years”.
The bids for 2012 Olympics also demonstrated how the hosting of the games in itself is a grand competition amongst cities. The closely fought bids for the 2012 games saw the who’s who of the world power blocks go out of their way to support their cities including the likes of Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former French President Jacques Chirac. This intense competition is indeed a reflection of the way cities around the world compete with each other today.
Cities are hubs of information, innovation and capital. Their competitiveness is largely rooted in their ability to attract skilled people and thereby businesses and resources. Cities around the world are therefore constantly competing for these assets to elevate or retain their status in the world order. A strong city brand which is an amalgam of tangibles like good infrastructure and an attractive place and intangibles like a strong brand or a distinctive sense of that place; hold that potential to attract people and investors.
Therein, Olympics that bring the world together on one platform are in essence leveraged by city leadership as way of powerful image-building exercises and as a means to weave lasting legacies. Whether that legacy and image are negative or positive is largely dependent on the city leadership’s vision and on their ability to execute that vision.

antiago Calatravas Communications Tower standing against the sun in the middle of the big square at the Olympic Ring
Santiago Calatrava's Communications Tower at the Olympic Ring in Barcelona

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