Olympic urbanism: past, present and future

Smith, Andrew, Gold, John Robert and Gold, Margaret (2024) Olympic urbanism: past, present and future. Planning Perspectives, 39 (3). pp. 487-499. ISSN 1466-4518


City planning and urban change have become closely associated with the Olympic Games. Early editions of the revived Games had relatively limited effects on their host cities but, over the past century, hosting the Olympic Games has become an urban project rather than merely a sporting or geopolitical one.Footnote1 This is demonstrated by the ways in which key terms such as ‘legacy’ and ‘spectacle’ are now commonly used. Rather than memories, behaviours or cultures nurtured by the Games, Olympic legacies now tend to be associated with physical changes made to host cities. Similarly, contemporary Olympic spectacle tends to be produced by dramatic architecture rather than unbridled festivity or sporting drama. Preparation for the Games is now less about spectator anticipation, athlete training and event organization, but rather a ‘build-up’ characterized by frenzied construction, planning disputes, cost overruns and the ill-treatment of labourers.

Put simply, the Olympic Games have been urbanized. Host cities, and the changes made to those cities, are not merely background settings for the Olympic Games. Instead, the urban environment has moved to centre stage in that rather than merely staging the Games, organizers seem intent on staging the city – an idea explored by various authors including Hu (this volume). More recent shifts have also contributed to making the Olympic Games an essentially urban event. The Summer Games have always been associated with major cities, but the Winter Games have now also been urbanized, with large cities like Beijing, Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver hosting the Games since the Millennium. Moreover, new events have been introduced to represent urban sports in both the Winter and Summer Games. The programme for Paris 2024, for instance, includes breaking, BMX freestyle, skateboarding, and 3X3 basketball. These sports tend to be staged in streets, parks and plazas not formal arenas, thereby furthering the Games’ penetration into the city and the city into the Games.

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