Lessons for Cape Town to approach global events like the Olympic Games

With the world looking forward to the London 2012 Olympics, four urban experts discuss the best way for a city to approach such a massive global event. Richard Sennett of New York University and LSE explains that world events are positive for cities if they leave a lasting legacy.

Race riots followed a year after the Games in Los Angeles, and Athens hasn’t wound up with much either. “It’s only worthwhile for a city to attract a big global event if it uses the event to achieve a goal that is far more complex and far more important for the city than the event itself,” adds Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, New York.

The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona helped to make it the city cool. London faces the same potential and opportunity. As Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age programme adds: “It’s not about what happens next year, for two weeks in London, but what happens in the next 20 years.

The Olympic Games and other major events are often blamed by cities and city leaders, for certain impacts, causes and crippling levels of debt. Contrary to popular belief, the drop in tourism in Sydney after the 2000 Olympic Games was not due to the Olympic Games, but a complacency around the post event work needed to sustain the benefits of the global exposure Sydney received.

In another example, the current Euro crisis and fragility of the Greek economy, is the consequence of decades of a Greek financial culture that the EU and other EU counterparts were well aware of but chose to ignore. It was in fact not started by the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004 or the period from 1997, leading up to Games. The blame game simply shifts the blame to a major event, an easy way out, when the interrogation and analysis of the real flaws that cities make, in deciding to bid, bidding and delivering for these events, is often sidelined.

The reality is that cities choose to bid for these mega-events, and at the outset need to be clear about the benefits they choose to derive.

The above video entitled How Cities approach global events like the Olympics by the London School of Economics, questions in part, whether cities are shifting the blame, for their lack of vision and planning, as well as an inability to integrate the Olympic Games into their city masterplan. In this context, the Olympic Games forms but one piece of a larger puzzle to develop infrastructure, transform neighbourhoods, and importantly, develop community sports infrastructure. This is not inconceivable for Cape Town.

We may use our expanding MyCiTi system as an example. While it’s delivery was accelerated due to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it’s expansion was always part of a broader masterplan to be delivered in 4 or 5 phases. It is not directly linked to a specific major event, and therefore it’s delivery and milestones post 2010,  needs to be championed by citizens, the private sector and public sector, which includes national government, the DoT and other bodies who are funding the majority of the infrastructure.

The question then becomes how do we integrate the demands of the Olympic Games with this bus rapid transit masterplan rather than designing it at the outset for such an event.

One could imagine that by 2020 work on Phase 3 may already be underway and that the urgent modernization and upgrade of rail infrastructure would have started. To accommodate a multi-sport event using various sites across the city, it would merely be a matter of activating event services on existing major trunk and feeder routes (rail, bus and other).

Moving from the CBD to the Airport or Khayelitsha, and several other inter-connections e.g. between Metro South-East and Bellville or between Newlands and Mitchell’s Plain, to account for peak Games transport demands becomes significantly easier. In this manner an event of this magnitude, while still a major transport operations task (which should in no way be underestimated) changes it’s focus from; investing infrastructure to meet the requirements of the Olympic Games to adapting existing infrastructure to the temporary needs of the Games. In short, fitting the Games into your city and not vice versa. Easy? Yes. Do cities do this? No!

Cape Town was therefore in some regards forced to defend the work taking place on the West Coast Route rather than planning the entire IRT system around the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In this regard the city should be applauded.

But cities cannot benefit in the same way from these events. So when we cite Barcelona as an Olympic success story, we should be aware that benefits and impacts will not equally accrue in other cities, in particular long-haul destinations such as Cape Town.

The success of Barcelona 1992, is in fact not 1992. The success rested on the multiple key decisions made in the early 80’s, before a decision was taken to bid for the Olympic Games. Barcelona asked difficult questions about its own future, and decided on its growth and development path. As an example,  the Olympic Village, formed one part of reclaiming its waterfront, re-igniting a part of the City’s connection to water. It was a bold project considering that unsightly rail and power lines needed to be diverted below ground level, in the process displacing industries.

The end result, while an ongoing regeneration project, was merely accelerated due to the deadline of hosting the 1992 Olympic Games.

So should Cape Town bid for the Olympic Games, and when is the right time? Are we prepared to integrate an event of this magnitude into our long term vision for our city and the region? The 9.3 billion pound investment into the East of London, including Stratford, Hackney and surrounding areas poses an interesting challenge for Cape Town. We are challenged with our very own imbalance between a developed “West” and the decades of under investment in our “East” or more accurately the Metro South East.

Should we explore the concept of a Khayelitsha Olympic Park, and how by drawing local, provincial and most importantly, national funding into such a space could begin to address this imbalance? Mega-events are clearly never a solution to all our social and economic challenges, but can we use them as part of a solution and are we willing to learn how?