The latest version of the Olympic Games are upon us, and once again, it is time to review the value of major international sporting events to local communities. Cities across the world continue to present elaborate bids, hoping to secure these substantial experiences that require tremendous local investment in venues, transportation, housing, and other resources. For generations, many have wondered about the meaning and value of such spending. What are the lasting benefits of Olympic games to cities? Do Olympic games tend to benefit local populations, especially lower income constituencies? Do they improve environmental sustainability? Do they expand opportunities in employment, education, and housing?
The Tokyo Games provide an intriguing case regarding the local population. After all, these games are taking place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The running, swimming, jumping, twisting, and all manner of physical feats will take place without fans. This will certainly dramatically reduce local revenue in the shorter term. But even holding the event is questionable given strikingly low vaccination rates in Japan. At the beginning of the month, only 12.65% of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated against COVID, as compared to more than 40% in places like the U.S. and U.K.
The 2021 games are no ordinary example of the Olympics. Nevertheless, it is still worth taking a fresh look at the idea of major international sporting events as engines of community and economic development. Are they worth the effort for local communities? Particularly bringing an equity lens to these circumstances, do these events tend to reduce inequities and expand opportunities, or do they exacerbate existing disparities? It is one thing to attract capital by harnessing these events. Ensuring that this capital is distributed and applied to populations that could most benefit from these resources is an entirely different proposition.
Over recent decades, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has begun to grapple with some of these dynamics. International sporting events have been encouraged by the United Nations to align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2015, the UN General Assembly mentioned the important role that sports play in supporting the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs. The Olympic Movement has core missions closely aligned with many SDGs.
A December 2017 IOC report addressed concerns about the lasting legacy of Olympic Games. The report outlines an approach that includes considering and documenting the games’ long-term impacts. These objectives underscore, at least rhetorically, the IOC’s commitment to ensuring games contribute substantially to local communities well beyond their occurrence, which is considered in the selection process. Consequently, cities hosting contemporary games were required to propose a lasting legacy. Ostensibly, Olympic Games will increasingly be expected to deliver on promises. Will they succeed? Will they be held accountable if they do not?
For the most part, cities have experienced various challenges with ensuring a lasting legacy from these events. First of all, Olympic Games typically require numerous new facilities — housing apartments, sporting arenas and tracks, exercise areas and equipment. These structures leave cities with additional infrastructure that can be costly to maintain and lacks long-term value. Secondly, the economic impact from these events tends to be concentrated in the particular geographic areas in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic Park. These are often areas that are relatively inaccessible. Third, environmental regulations instituted in order to ensure a healthy and clean environment for the Games are often terminated after the event, leaving no lasting impact. Additionally, Olympic Park spaces require significant reconfiguration in order to be useful under normal circumstances. They also require new forms of public transportation to be accessible on some regular basis. Considering equity, these challenges are even more complex.
Some relatively recent examples of Olympic Games have promised lasting local benefits, and attempted to deliver them.
Like the Tokyo Games, the Rio Olympics took place under a cloud of controversy and intense scrutiny over health and safety. These Games were rather costly at somewhere in the range of $13 billion USD. They promised tourism as a pathway to short-term job creation. As in the case of other Games, Rio accelerated various infrastructure investments around an Olympic Village, including 31 residential buildings with 3,604 apartments sold after the event. A recreational park, City of Rock, was created as well. But, here again, these structures are concentrated in a particular region that does not reach most local citizens. The tourism stimulated by the event actually revealed existing capacity and municipal management limitations.
The Organizing Committee of the Rio Olympic Games implemented a sustainable development plan to look at the environmental impacts of the Games on the host community. Medals distributed during the Games were made of recycled materials, and a Solar City Tower supplied energy to part of the city and the Olympic Village. However, the Games produced roughly 3.6 million metric tons of carbon, related to road and building construction along with emissions from air travel and shuttles between airports, stadiums, and hotels.
The Games provided an opportunity for Brazilians to share and gather, strengthening a sense of community. Crianca Global, a new government program, was created to expand educational opportunities for children and youth, requiring public schools to teach English as a second language. This program led to the hiring and training of 350 new teachers in 2014, which impacted 100,000 primary schoolchildren. Nineteen towns received funds from the program in 2016.
Despite this program with direct educational impact on local children, the Games encountered significant opposition, including widespread public demonstrations in 2014. The Organizing Committee rented or sold Olympic Village apartments at unaffordable prices. The Village was built on the site of the favelas, forcing the relocation of low income families. Additionally, the activity surrounding the games led to an increase in drug trafficking and the availability of drugs.
The London Games were held in a historically lower income community in East London. Included in London’s proposal to the IOC was a commitment to transform this local community. Their Olympic Park was created on a site that was largely polluted and inaccessible, which was acquired through a program of land acquisition, remediation, and development. The transformation began with the remediation and clean-up of 2.5 kilometers of brownfield land. Six permanent sporting venues were developed. In 2013, after the Games, responsibility for the transformation of the Olympic Park was transferred to the London Legacy Development Corporation. The corporation’s work included transforming Olympic facilities into nearly 10,000 new homes, two primary schools, a secondary school, nine nurseries, three health centers, and a number of multi-purpose community, leisure, and cultural spaces.
The Games also resulted in some expansion of public transportation, including a project to double the capacity of a local train station (Stratford Station), upgrades to the Dockland Light Railway, and upgrades to the North London Line. Various local development projects were either accelerated or expanded, including the improvement of Hackney Wick and Fish Island, Greenwich Riverside and Town Center, and Stratford Center. Here again, we find some development stimulated by Olympics, but in a limited geographic area, as these projects are in the vicinity of the Olympic Park in Stratford.
While the intention to improve an area that has been relatively underserved is certainly noble, a 2017 report released by the London Assembly’s Regeneration Committee asserts that the gap in many quality of life indicators — including housing, health, and life expectancy — between the six host boroughs in East London and the rest of London has not been closed, and the earnings gap in 2015 was greater than it was in 2009, before the Games. Other key areas such as unemployment and income levels seem to have annual fluctuations but with little signs of consistent or permanent improvement. Nevertheless, educational targets for these boroughs have been achieved; whether the Games were a factor or not is unknown. Overall, the changes in East London may have been accelerated temporarily by hosting the Games, but long-term improvements are not likely.
Tokyo has proposed various approaches with respect to the environment, education, employment, and other areas.
The Games’ approach to venues has been a central aspect of their intended environmental legacy. They are making greater use of existing venues than some other Olympic Games, rather than building anew — 58% of venues are existing competition sites. The organizing committee is promoting the use of public transportation and fuel cell electric vehicles with a low environmental impact. They are making use of recycled materials in venues.
Also with respect to environmentally sustainable practices, various citizen CO2 reduction campaigns are connected to the Games. The Games have been collaborating with Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Environment on a range of strategies. Attention to the natural environment and biodiversity are also included. The venues are conserving water through rainwater harvesting and recycling. They have been retaining existing trees and protecting wildlife habits in the design and construction of venues.
Citizen engagement has been incorporated into the approach with projects such as Tokyo 2020 Nationwide Participation, a volunteer initiative to maximize the Games’ impact. They have engaged sponsors in dialogue about sustainability matters through the Sponsors Sustainability Network, created in 2017. Fifty-one companies were involved in this effort as of January 2020. The Games have also been considering human rights, labor, and fair business practices, including spreading diversity and inclusion and working to ensure accessibility through mobility support, information accessibility, and venue facilities development.
In education, as of April 2017, the Tokyo Organizing Committee launched a national education program (Yoi Don – Get Set) to promote the values of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to schoolchildren across Japan. Schools using these materials will receive special certification. This strategy includes dispersal of math textbooks to more than 100,000 students at public elementary schools in Tokyo. These textbooks aim to help students with mathematics through problems that involve Japanese athletes and sporting bodies.
CISCO Information Security Education includes a partnership with Cisco to provide training in information security. The “Cyber Security Scholarship Program” is open to students and adults seeking to become specialists in cyber security. This effort, which includes cooperation with local governments and educational institutions, is certified as a part of the “Tokyo 2020 Participation Program”.
In 2017, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government calculated the estimated economic and other effects associated with holding the Tokyo Games. Regarding employment, the government estimated that approximately 1.3 million people across Tokyo and 1.94 million people across Japan would be employed by the Games, including throughout the process of preparing for and holding the games, and employment opportunities continuing after the Games were held. While these estimations were made before the impacts of COVID-19 were a consideration, they indicate how Tokyo as the host city expected to gain lasting employment opportunities through the Games.
Regarding culture, the Japanese government started the “Beyond2020” program in 2017 to promote activities that highlight the rich and diverse regional cultures of the country. The “Beyond2020” program authenticated 8,593 projects from its inception in 2017 until the end of 2018.
Overall, the Tokyo strategy, while including numerous categories in which they hope to leave a lasting legacy, lacks a comprehensive community and economic development agenda. It does not appear to prioritize equity or ensure that lower income populations benefit. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic may have seriously disrupted the potential impact of the Games. Without spectators, billions in revenue will be lost. The approach of these Games appears to be relatively surface level and short term.
In some ways, the public health context surrounding these games is an extreme challenge to the community benefits of Olympic Games. The local population overwhelmingly opposes holding the event given the continued spread of the virus. Now that numerous athletes are testing positive, some of the fears are being realized. Nevertheless, it appears the games will proceed.
It remains to be seen what the Olympics will catalyze for Tokyo populations in the coming years. But, reflections on the historical evolution of community and economic development via sporting events such as the Olympics provide us some considerations for the future. First of all, it is difficult to discern whether the IOC has effectively encouraged Olympic Games to leave a legacy that is truly transformative. Given the amount of time, energy, and resources invested in securing, holding, and leveraging the Games, it feels as if they should be held to a higher standard.
Even if a host committee promises a comprehensive and transformative strategy, what are the consequences for not following through? What is the role of the IOC in ensuring that Games benefit cities, particularly in an equitable manner? The overall approach of Olympic Games and other major international sporting events to host cities requires a fresh, critical look.
Furthermore, local populations should have a greater voice in shaping how the Games can strengthen benefits to host communities. Indeed, partnerships have been fundamental to organizing these multifaceted sporting experiences, but corporate sponsors and government officials are not the only partners to engage. Grassroots organizations that represent constituents that actually need an infusion of new resources bring a different point of view. Olympic Games should transcend strategies that merely generate revenue and other resources without attention to distributing them where they are needed most of all.
The article was first published on the State of the Planet.
About the Author
David J. Maurrasse is a research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and is the president and founder of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing advice and research to strengthen philanthropy and innovative cross-sector partnerships to address some of today’s most pressing social concerns. He is the author of Philanthropy and Society and the soon to be published Strategic Community Partnerships, Philanthropy and Nongovernmental Organizations. He is also beginning research toward the production of another book, Community Partnerships Toward Sustainable and Equitable Communities.