Posted by Oliver Meredew on August 5th, 2016.
Copyright: Filipe Frazao
With the eyes of the world now turned to Rio for the 2016 Olympics, questions have been raised about how the Games will be managed, both during the event and when the torch has been passed to the Japanese delegation for the 2020 event.
Questions over Brazil’s economic stability, and subsequent suitability, to hold the games were raised frequently in the build up to the event – but they’re certainly not the first host nation to be standing on rocky ground while putting on the games.
History has provided plenty of opportunities for examining the effects of hosting the prestigious event, so as the world gears up for another round of sporting prowess and record-breaking performances, it’s worth taking a look back at how hosting the celebrated Games has turned out for other host nations.
Starting off this chronicle of particularly famous and infamous Olympic Games of the past is an entry in the latter category, the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
Although the US managed to clinch the uncontested bidding process for LA, the Games themselves were sparsely attended, with just over 1300 athletes making it to the city to take part.
This relatively slim number of participants (the London 2012 Olympics had over 10,500 athletes involved) was partly due to an event out of the hands of the US, which was the Great Depression of the 1930’s. In addition, Los Angeles was a relatively remote city at the time, smaller in size and far less densely populated than today.
As a consequence of the severe economic crisis facing the US at the time, virtually all of the venues used for events were either existing stadiums/tracks or simple modifications of pre-built sites for new purposes, rather than completely new constructions built specifically for the games.
However, most of the venues used for events survived the troubled 30’s and are still around today, with the Rose Bowl Stadium standing as a monument to the Olympic spirit.
A brighter tale of past Games also comes during a time of economic hardship, and a lot closer to home.
As the first Games after the Second World War, the 1948 Summer Olympics held in London were dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’, due to the rationing measures still in place in a post-war UK that had been dealt a serious economic blow by the effort required to win the war.
As with the 1932 Games, no new venues were built due to cost-saving measures; Wembley Stadium became the athletics track (with the ground being covered with cinders) and the opening ceremony was concluded with the release of thousands of pigeons.
Cost-cutting was also evident in what was provided; colleges and RAF bases were used to house athletes and much of the nourishment afforded to these competitors was provided via generous foreign aid.
Although this was another tale of ‘Olympics on a shoe string’, the event was by all accounts a resounding success, with participants displaying a keen desire to put the misery of the recent war behind them and ticket sales actually generating a tidy profit for organisers to boot.
If you’re looking for a less glamourous example of what the Olympics can do to a host city, the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada is certainly one to be aware of.
The actual sporting events saw a number of record-breaking feats and memorable moments, but it was the long-term legacy of the Montreal Olympics that were remembered.
Amid political unrest caused by a number of African nations boycotting the Games in response to New Zealand’s rugby team touring the then-apartheid South Africa (viewed as a highly controversial move), the cost of bringing the Games to Canada mounted dramatically.
The centrepiece of the Olympic venues, the ‘Big O’ stadium, became notorious among Montreal’s residents as the ‘Big Owe’, on account of the total cost of Olympic construction rising from the area of $360m to approximately $1.6bn. Such was the horrendous level of debt incurred by creating the structure that the city didn’t manage to pay off the initial 1976 price until late 2006.
In addition to costing an eye-watering amount, the ‘Big O’ also failed to match with the expectations of its architects; a planned retractable roof never materialised and the eye-catching slanted tower that hangs over the stadium today was still under construction by the time the Games had begun.
We’ll move to a more positive Olympics legacy now, with the 1996 Summer Olympics. These were held in Atlanta, Georgia, and were at the time the biggest Games to date, with 197 nations sending their best contenders to compete for ever-elusive medals.
The opening ceremony was a memorable one, featuring a surprise appearance by Muhammad Ali to light the Olympic Flame, although the games were also struck with tragedy when bombs were set off in the Centennial Olympic Park.
In spite of this atrocity, the morale of athletes and crowds remained high, and US athletes went on to secure over a hundred medals for the host nation.
While a number of former Olympic sites have been demolished in the years following the games, the Centennial Olympic Stadium has lived on in the form of the Turner Field baseball stadium. The longest lasting legacy of the 1996 Games remains in Atlanta’s greatly improved infrastructure and regenerated downtown area.
While the 1976 Games may have featured boycotting as a sideshow, the act of rejecting the Olympics for political purposes featured centre stage for both the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics.
Respectively held in Russia (Moscow) and the US (Los Angeles), both Games were heavily boycotted due to political reasons.
In Russia’s case, the decision of the then-Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan in 1979 to back the nation’s Soviet-supporting communist government was an inciting factor for frayed relations between Russia and the US, with the full commitment of Russian forces in the region being the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In addition to the US and Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Turkey and countless others sided with the US’s decision to boycott the games, resulting in the number of participants being slashed to 80 nations and just over 5000 athletes.
Relations remained on unfriendly terms between East and West for the 1984 iteration of the Olympics, which (while a commercial and sporting success) was still marred by the decision of the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Cuba, Poland and others to boycott proceedings.
Although the USSR claimed that it was concerned about the safety of its athletes, the slant was largely seen as an act of international revenge and resulted in an alternate multinational event called the ‘Friendship Games’ also taking place in 1984, featuring many of the nations that had decided not to engage in events in Los Angeles.
The 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney, Australia, are generally regarded as one of the best on record, with the turn of the century bringing a memorable display of unity and good-spirit from Down Under.
The opening ceremony brought a powerful image of the desires of the Australian people to reconcile with the nation’s indigenous population, in the form of Australian Aboriginal Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron to get the games underway.
The games also made global history, marking as they did a hundred years of women’s involvement in the Games as participants. New sports included the gruelling event of the triathlon and the Korean martial artistry of taekwondo.
While Australia ended in fourth place in the overall medal table, this mattered little when the statement emerged from then-International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch that Sydney 2000 had been ‘the best Olympic Games ever’.
As one final dip into the perilous economic impacts that hosting the Olympics can have on the host nation, we travel to Greece. While the Olympics originated in Ancient Greece, the Hellenic nation’s hosting of the event in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens proved to be a bittersweet homecoming.
As with Montreal, the actual games themselves went off relatively smoothly, with a number of world records being broken and the US scooping the lion’s share of the medals.
With no real plans to reuse the costly venues that had been constructed for the Games, however, the once-appealing sites of the 2004 Olympics steadily fell into disrepair and decay.
The Greek nation fared little better, as in the wake of the financial crash of the late 2000’s, what is now known as the ‘Greek debt crisis’ began to take a very clear and dangerous form, with part of the monumental debt mountain being generated by the billions of Euros worth of obligations generated by the Olympics.
While the Olympics cannot be considered solely responsible for bringing the Greek economy to its knees after the financial crisis, the Greek government’s failure to invest in the future when constructing its Olympic venues still remains a sobering lesson to be learned by future host nations.
Closing off this tour of Olympic Games gone by, we come full circle with the 2012 Summer Olympics. Held in London, the Games not only set a new benchmark for Games to come, but also celebrated the true spirit of the Olympics as an international bond between unity and achievement, celebration and commiseration.
Memorable moments from 2012 included then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson getting stuck on a zipline, the lavish opening ceremony covering the industrial revolution and the invention of the internet and Jamaican runner Usain Bolt comfortably jogging to victory (and three gold medals).
In the events, first times were also had, when the nations of Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia fielded female athletes and US swimmer Michael Phelps claimed a grand total of 22 medals.
As Sebastian Coe closed off the Games by saying that ‘We lit the flame, and we lit up the world’, the legacy of the Olympic venues in London remained secure, with long-lasting sustainability plans ensuring that the stadiums and parks constructed for the Games were put to good use in the months and years that followed.
With all of these success stories and tales of Olympic woe to look back on, the organisers of Rio 2016 will surely be doing their best to ensure a tale of triumph when it comes to hosting one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world.
There’s no denying that this year’s games have been mired in controversy before they have even begun, with the Zika virus plaguing South America during its hottest months and political corruption charges in Brazil reaching as high as the presidency.
This is no indication of how the Games themselves will unfold, however, so it is best to approach the Games in Rio with an understanding mind, as the world’s top athletes compete for personal glory and national honour in the 2016 Olympic Games.
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