What happens to the East End of London when the stadium lights go off and the crowds return home after the London Olympics? Will Britain's hopes for revitalizing the area be realized?
The Olympics have always been associated with cities, but it's only in modern times that they've been used as a tool of urban transformation, says George Papakis, an instructor and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).
Issues associated with hosting the Olympic Games are the topic of a fall course that Papakis is teaching in the Department of Urban Studies, "Perspectives on the Urban Scene, Atlanta, Beijing, London: Olympic Cities and Urban Development."
The class will investigate the Olympic Games as a complex urban phenomenon with implications for understanding the modern metropolis.
As the Olympics moved from a simple athletic competition in a single stadium to a gigantic spectacle, says Papakis, cities began seizing their moments on the world stage to jump-start their economies and revitalize urban areas.
"After the 1936 Games in Berlin, it became obvious that the Olympics could be much more than a simple athletic competition," he says. "But it was the Rome Olympics in 1960 that signaled the passage to large-scale interventions, so characteristic of today's Games. Since then, the Olympics started to become increasingly grandiose, requiring much higher investments, and leaving a much larger footprint on the urban environment of host cities."
Today, the investment by cities is massive. It is estimated that for hosting the 2008 Games, officials in Beijing spent more than $40 billion.
A personal interest
Papakis' interest in teaching a course on "Olympic urbanism" grew out of personal experience in his Greek homeland. He is working on his dissertation on the privatization of public space in Athens, using the city's former international airport as a case study.
"During the preparation period for the 2004 Games [in Athens] I became really concerned with the magnitude and scope of urban interventions that obviously did not address the chronic problems of a city," he says. "Initially, the whole endeavor was presented by the government as a reason for national pride and a sign of a dynamic economy."
While the country experienced a brief psychological boost as a small country hosting a major world event, the impact did not last.
"Today, many of the Olympic venues lay abandoned, in a state of disrepair, as the economy of the city crumbles," says Papakis. The situation figured into his research on urban development in a paper called "The Sobering Realities of the 2004 Olympics: Fiscal Crisis and the Privatization of Land."
What signals success?
Whether cities have been successful as a result of hosting the Olympics depends on how success is defined and who's defining it, says Papakis. The Greek government declared the 2004 Games a success because major problems were avoided, but in retrospect many in Greece feel the Olympics were a disaster, he says. The Montreal Olympics of 1976 also took a financial toll, with the province finally paying off debt for the event in 2006.
"On the other hand," says Papakis, "the 1992 Games in Barcelona are hailed as the epitome of a successful mega-event because they managed to regenerate the city's economy and redefine its identity." But, he adds, "There are those who claim that the development model introduced with the Olympics [overreliance on tourism and speculative real estate markets] is partly responsible for the current economic woes in cities like Barcelona."
So the question of the London Olympics' legacy on the city remains open, says Papakis. Will London's investment address underlying causes of Britain's 2011 urban riots? And how does the model hold up in challenging economic times?
"It is interesting, that the last Olympics hosted by London in 1948 were called 'the austerity games,'" he says, "and today London again hosts the Games amidst a persistent global economic crisis."
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