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Looking to Sochi: Olympic Bids and Heritage

Recent reports from Sochi, now just a few days away from the start of the Winter Olympics, are not promising.  The students in my sport tourism class asked why international sport organizations like the IOC grant bids to countries that seem ill-prepared to host a Games.  While I’m waiting to hold my fire for Sochi until the Games actually begin (after all, it seems like the days leading up to almost every Olympiad are fraught with challenges), and I’ll leave the “why” of the IOC’s decision to more qualified sport management scholars, it did make me think of the bidding process and a chapter in the Heritage and the Olympics book (also available in the International Journal of Heritage Studies) where Ulf Strohmayer describes Olympics that “never were” and the impact hosting an Olympics on the non-Olympic heritage infrastructure of cities (in his case, Paris).  From the 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.

Although the Paris bids and the Sochi Games are quite different, it did make me think about the risks involved in hosting an Olympic Games.  I wonder if Paris dodged a bullet by not hosting a modern Olympics – not that they wouldn’t be prepared, but for how such an event might alter the city (though, post-London, this may be less of an issue).  In the case of Sochi, it doesn’t seem – at present – like it is setting up to be a successful Games.  Even for locations like Vancouver, which were largely successful in terms of operations and image, didn’t have much lasting economic impact (if any) and, really, was a two week period for Canadians to feel good about themselves (which isn’t a bad thing, mind you).  Seemingly, then, the main reason for hosting a mega sporting event these days is to create post-event legacies through infrastructure, create a sense of domestic cohesion through nationalism, and…well…not much else. One has to wonder if hosting an Olympics is something best avoided – I guess we’ll see at Sochi.

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