The Olympic Games and Urban Development

London Olympic Park under construction in Oct. 2009 Source: supermoving @ Flickr

In this part of the Olympic Games series, we’ll examine the role that the Olympic Games has played as a catalyst for urban development, particularly in the form of transport infrastructure.

The evolution of the modern Olympic Games can be related in terms of size and cost. As each Olympiad passes, the cost borne by the host city and country has grown. In the 1896 Athens Games, there were 245 athletes from 14 countries that participated. The next time Athens hosted an Olympic Games, in 2004, there were 10,625 athletes from 201 countries. The cost of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens was approximately €9 billion euro.

The growth of the Olympics has had a profound effect on the Olympic host city. Due to the escalating costs of hosting an Olympic Games, the IOC established an Olympic Games Study Commission to “analyze the current scale and scope of the Olympic Games…to propose solutions to help manage the inherent size, complexity, and cost of staging the Olympic Games in the future”. In the last few decades, however, this complexity has grown beyond the organization and implementation of the Olympic Games. Rather, organizing an Olympic Games has increasingly been used as an opportunity for urban renewal and economic development. This includes the increased economic activity as a result of tourism, the construction of sport facilities in previously under-provided areas, and the justification for new investment in transportation infrastructure and urban design.

The popularity of the Olympic Games among the countries of the world has much to do with the television broadcast of the Games. Since the 1960 Olympics in Rome, television has had an increasingly important role in displaying the Olympics and its ideals to the world. The 2000 Sydney Games attracted over 20,000 journalists and was watched by over 3.7 billion television viewers. This coverage has led to increasing popularity and participation among the countries of the world. In 1988, 159 countries participated in Seoul’s Summer Olympics. By the time of Sydney’s Olympics in 2000, there was 200 countries participating.

Olympic Village and Vancouver. Source: City of Vancouver

As the popularity of the Olympics has grown in terms of participation and spectators, a place to house Olympic athletes and officials was needed close to the Olympic venues. This need was recognized long ago, back in 1932. The first Olympic Village was constructed for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The Village was built on 250 acres and contained several hundred dwellings, a post office, amphitheater, hospital, fire station, and bank. In contrast, the Olympic Village planned for London’s 2012 Olympic Games will provide lodging for 17,000 people with shops, restaurants, a hospital, media facilities, and direct transportation to central London via train. In both cases, the Olympic Villages were constructed adjacent to much of the sporting venues, thus creating the term “Olympic City.”

Because of the requirements of hosting the Olympics and because of the increasing popularity of the Olympics from the number of athletes and events to tourism, host cities are recognizing the urban impacts that the Olympic Games can have on their environments. Cities recognize that the potential long-term benefit of hosting the Olympic Games is the opportunity it provides to influence the pattern of urban development through investment in infrastructure and environmental improvements. As a result of winning the bid to host the Olympic Games, urban development in host cities are required to perform three major functions:

  • Primary Structure: Sport and Leisure
    • Stadium
    • Indoor Arena
    • Special facilities: swimming pool, shooting range, rowing course, equestrian facilities
  • Secondary Structure: Housing and Recreation
    • Athlete and media village (Olympic Village)
    • Media and press center
    • Training facilities
    • Parks
  • Tertiary Structure: Infrastructure
    • Transportation
      • Airport
      • Public transport
      • Roads and Highways
    • Tourism
      • Hotels
      • Attractions
    • Utility
      • Sewers: drainage and sanitary
      • Telecommunications

These urban development structures may or may not conflict with the host city’s own plans for urban development, but the Olympic Games provides the vehicle for expedient development. Since the 1960’s, many of the Olympic host cities have followed this structure that guides urban development.


The primary structure involves the physical development of sport and leisure facilities that are needed to successfully host the Olympic Games. These structures can already exist in a city or be newly constructed. Venues of this type can be subdivided into stadiums, halls, multi-purpose and training facilities. The construction (or reconstruction) of stadiums has been a feature of urban development since the first Olympics in 1896.

Many large cities usually have a large stadium which is normally used for the opening and closing ceremonies, track and field, and soccer. These facilities should have a capacity of at least 80,000. The Olympic hall would is a smaller venue that hosts volleyball, basketball and gymnastics. These facilities can have a capacity of up to 25,000. Multi-purpose facilities are even smaller and are often found in convention centers. Similarly, training centers can often use multi-purpose and smaller halls for their needs.

The secondary structure of housing and recreation are necessary in the hosting of the Olympic Games. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 had 15,000 athletes and 6,000 media and press. Requirements for housing have been provided by “Olympic Villages,” with post-Olympic use generally turned over to the private sector for affordable housing. Olympic host cities generally try to use Olympic Villages as a way to regenerate an area of the city. Due to the large spaces required for Olympic venues and housing of athletes, many host cities have usually chosen sites that are underutilized and near the center of the city. Cities such as Munich, Seoul, Barcelona, Sydney, and Athens have all chosen underutilized sites near the center of the city for Olympic facilities.

The tertiary structure, however, is probably the most important as a requirement for hosting the Olympic Games. Airports and rail stations are necessary as gateways to the outside world. Roads and public transport are necessary for movement and mobility around the city. Infrastructure investment is probably the single most important cost of the Olympic Games and is vital. It is correct in stating that without a strong tertiary structure, any city bidding for the Olympic Games will fail in its bid.

In the next post, we’ll examine how Olympic host cities leverage the Olympic Games in developing the tertiary structure of transport infrastructure.


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