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Olympic Bids and Heritage

In light of the announcement that Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 Olympics, I was reminded of a recent paper in the International Journal of Heritage Studies that examined the impact Olympic bids have on urban heritage.  “Non-events and their legacies: Parisian heritage and the Olympics that never were” by Ulf Strohmayer considers not only Olympic bids themselves a kind of sport heritage, but also examines what the Olympics means for cities with a significant and recognizable built heritage inventory.   From the paper’s abstract:

This paper examines three failed bids by the French Olympic Committee and the City of Paris to host the summer Olympic Games of 1992, 2008 and 2012 in an attempt better to understand the role of heritage designations in the context of urban change. Introducing the various sites earmarked for the Games, the paper explores the relationship between planning as a political tool and its impact on the built environment within the context of a complex web of local, national and international demands, needs and aspirations. Based on archival research, the paper explores the dialectical relationship between the demonstrated ability of city councils to declare designated ‘Olympic’ spaces as functionally ‘ready’ to absorb massive new infrastructures and questions posed by whatever physical infrastructure remains after a bid has failed. Since the timeframe chosen for the paper (1986–2006) coincides with a move by the International Olympic Committee to prioritise ‘sustainable urbanism’ as a key legacy of ‘successful’ Olympic Games, this relationship between presences and absences is mediated not just with the help of possible futures in the form of Olympic sites but has had to validate and justify the choice of terrain as well. The paper concludes with a brief meditation on the relationship between present urban heritage and possible futures in the context of mega-events like the Olympic Games.

One of the interesting tensions that Strohmayer highlights is that contemporary Olympics – that emphasize place identity as a legacy – may be incompatible with cities like Paris that have a large built heritage core.  While London managed to somewhat blend both heritage/place markers with an Olympic games (through events at Whitehall, the Maritime Greenwich, and Lord’s Cricket Ground among others), one wonders how many heritage cities could absorb such a large scale event without either a) razing heritage districts, or b) situating the events in the suburbs and, thereby, omitting the important “setting” shots for television.

Not knowing anything about Tokyo’s built heritage, and following on Strohmayer’s argument, I wonder whether the city was better able to absorb an Olympics more than either Istanbul or Madrid was.  While I doubt built heritage conservation was a  major concern for the IOC, it will be interesting to see whether many heritage cities bid for future Games given the space/place commitment.    

(Note: Strohmayer’s paper – and other heritage/Olympic perspectives – are available in Heritage and the Olympics: People, Place and Performance)


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