As we all know, the 2012 Summer Olympics will take place in London during the months of July and August.
And, from recent history of this mega-event, Olympic Games usually leave the host countries with massive financial burden. Spending billions to host the two-week event, cities almost never make a profit and usually spend years paying off their Olympic-sized debt. Furthermore, these cities are often left with unused venues and “white elephant” main stadiums.
Since hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2010, the city of Vancouver has been left with a nasty financial hang over that was the result of the project’s developer running into bankruptcy. It has been two years and the city is still trying to recover its costs by selling the premium condominiums in the 16 buildings that make up the Olympic Village. After being pushed into receivership, it has begun filling up the empty suites and the debt has been reduced but it is very unlikely that the $170 million owed on the land purchase will ever be recovered.
Looking back a little further in 2008, the Beijing Summer Olympics were the most expensive Games on record, costing about $40 billion. However, China had enough capital to pay for the new stadiums and infrastructures that have brought much-needed investment to the city without leaving it in a financial mess. And everyone involved forced themselves to believe that most of the Olympic venues in Beijing went on to have long-term use and provide benefit to the city. However, maintaining the structures and venues has become a significant financial drain, approximately $24 million annually. This is an undeniable fact. The $500-million “Bird’s Nest” Stadium had just one event booked for 2009: a concert to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the opening ceremonies. And it is said that the 91,000-seat stadium, too large even for the national soccer team, will be transformed into a shopping centre in the near future.
Will London end up in the same quagmire? Fortunately, London is fundamentally different from other Olympic Games’ host destinations in that it has planned the event in reverse. The fundamental concept was that they would focus on how the sites and structures will be used afterward and how they will be integrated into neighbouring communities. According to one project manager for the sites, they are “designing and building for legacy which happens to be accommodating the Olympic Games first”. The interesting thing is that the word “legacy” is used in many ways in relation to the development of London’s Olympic Village. Given that the Games are a catalyst for urban development, investment in infrastructure and regeneration, the hope is that this will shift the geographic and mental map of London from West Ends to East Sides. This idea is not new to the people of London where the precedent has been set at Canary Wharf where a former dock was transformed into a thriving business district during the 1980s and 1990s.
In addition, lessons good and bad can be learned from previous host nations. While many sports venues are practically abandoned in previous Games, many structures meant to serve London’s Games were designed to be modular and adaptable. Take the 39,692-square-foot aquatic centre designed by Zaha Hadid for example. It was designed to be recycled and shrunk down to the size more practical for general use. During the Games, it can host more than 17,500 spectators. But once the wing has been removed it will bring the facility down to a manageable 2,500 seats. Its media centre is set up outside in a makeshift office instead of integrating into the main structure to save space and cost.
London’s housing shortage also was factored into the planning, through the construction of 10,000 to 12,000 new homes. The housing there has been designed to accommodate families and individuals and is being retrofitted for the athletes, not the other way round. For example, the International Olympic Committee doesn’t want the officials and athletes to cook so each of 3,000 apartment units were built with an empty kitchen space that can be used as additional bedroom. And after the Games, kitchens will be added and some of them will be sold at below-market prices.
According to one partner in the architectural firm responsible for the redevelopment of the Lea Valley area in East London after the Games are finished in 2012, he stated that “the presence of the Olympic Games, which only last a few weeks, is being seized as an opportunity for one of the largest urban renewal operations in Europe. An event like this is an opportunity you only get once. The tremendous intensification and the investment that goes with it will be used as a catalyser for long-term upgrading. The key strategy has to be well-thought out in advance.”
This quite sums up why London’s Olympic model will be the one to emulate in future Games.