Games / Place : What is the point of hosting the Olympic Games?

by Joe Weissmann

“I really haven’t the foggiest what it is” said the man standing next to me, “I mean, what’s the point?” We were staring up at the Orbit, Anish Kapoor’s strange metal mixture of helter-skelter and Eiffel Tower that is the big artistic moment in London’s Olympic park. This huge public sculpture arguably represents the paradox of the Olympics from the point of view of cities and their development; here is a dynamic, exciting, engaging and very visual event – but what is the point? The costly dozen days have to promise much to warrant their expense: a huge tourism boost – which is rarely fulfilled; sustainability – generally a downright fallacy; community spirit – which usually proves too expensive for the locals; and most important, a legacy of structure and infrastructure to serve generations to come. Since the 1930s, when the mega-event began to supersede international exhibitions in showing off national cultural prowess, this last promise has been justified so rarely that the usual post-Olympic label involving large mammals and a light colour has become more cliché than idiom. At the very least, then, the city can hope that the legacy of this massive public expenditure will be a flowering of artistic, architectural and civic creativity and, derived from it, a sense of cultural identity and pride.

Standing under the Orbit and wondering whether to pay fifteen quid for a slightly elevated view I found myself wondering whether London has delivered this. It is, in fact, a lot to ask from an event like the Olympics. Part of the problem is simply that many of the games involve arcane sports which will never be of much interest beyond their niche following. The buildings for these – and for the more popular sports such as cycling, swimming and running, tend to be somewhat circumscribed in their programme and requirements. The same can be said of the Olympic Village which essentially exists to house an international sporting camp for a couple of weeks. Compounding all of this is the budget which usually becomes so tight that the host becomes reliant on corporate sponsorship and, in the case of London, ends up with the main stadium wrapped in Bhopal-tainted advertisement.

London has handled this paradoxical opportunity for architectural and infrastructural civic development in typically hit-and-miss fashion. We have Zaha Hadid’s expressive and slick Aquatic Centre where one senses (arguably) the world’s most exciting architect hamstrung by budget and requirements delivering a building whose dolphin-like exterior is caught clumsily between two clunky stands of temporary seating.

Probably more successful is Hopkin’s Veledrome – a building whose spare, crafted construction combines the machined precision of a tuned-up bicycle with the centrifugal speed of the sport. And there are a few un-sung gems in the park – Make Architecture’s useful looking “Copper Box”, the austere park Electrical substation and John McAslan’s “Energy Centre” are considered works that resist the sensationalist form-making and fit easily into their chill East London setting. There is also, close to the Orbit, the View Tube, a fantastic little café whose modest construction materials seems more ingenious than its extravagant steel-gobbling neighbour.

Most eyes will, however, be on the stadium. Surprisingly this rather conventional, taut-looking structure has been nominated to the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist. Surprising because it delivers none of the “Birds Nest’s” emblematic wow and it turned out to be very expensive; Populous built the much more impressive Soccer City at almost half London’s £486 million price tag.

The argument of cost versus value will rage on in London as it did in South Africa following the World Cup. However for many citizens just a step beyond the hurriedly landscaped park, there remain deprived estates, hopeless high streets, unemployment and the predictions of rioting. In contrast to South Africa’s investment in infrastructure, city planning and national identity, the money and creativity poured into the Olympic park does not seem to have extended far outside its confines. Whether there are benefits beyond its fortnight of fame will become apparent over the years. Until such time and in the absence of any ground-breaking synthesis of cultural identity I find myself echoing the man under the Orbit; what’s the point?

There are 4 comments

  1. Joe Peach

    “Caught clumsily between two clunky stands of temporary seating”

    What is your point here? Should the temporary seating look better? Should the venue have been built with a capacity it would never need again? 

    I think we should be celebrating the fact that buildings are being designed to be flexible. Complaining about this is like complaining your sports car doesn’t go fast enough, or complaining that your lottery jackpot isn’t big enough. 

    The Olympic Park used to be a toxic wasteground. What’s the point of investing to turn a huge piece of centrally-located land into a pollutant-free recreational space?

    As a result of investment in transport infrastructure, Stratford is now one of the best-connected parts of London. What’s the point of improving connections to an area once synonymous with poverty that no one wanted to live in?

    Stratford is now home to the biggest shopping centre in Europe. Whether you like this building and what it represents, the economic benefits of it will last far beyond the two weeks of the Olympics. They began even before the Olympics. This development would not have happened without the Olympics. What’s the point of bringing economic opportunities to a deprived part of a city?

    Post-games, the Olympic Village is being converted into affordable housing, and more housing is being built surrounding the Olympic Park. What’s the point of developing modern, affordable housing in a low-income area?

    Stratford was deprived for years. It isn’t perfect now – who would expect it to be? But it is now home to fantastic architecture, recreational opportunities, and the world is watching a part of London that London itself barely acknowledged about a couple of decades ago.

    What’s the point of this article?

    1. OSlOlSO

      I think he’s referring to – why must all this money be spent on such an event to actually do all these things that are required in our cities? Why not immediately start on providing affordable housing, reconnecting the area, clean up the toxic wasteground, etc.

      Will only the Olympics save our cities and enable rebuilding them?

  2. OSlOlSO

    I do like the links to buildings related to the Olympics that don’t get much spot light. That substation structure is beautiful!

  3. info zaarchitecture


    Maybe read the article again.

    The question is not “is there any point in investing in areas like Stratford?” or “should toxic wasteland be reclaimed?” Clearly we all agree on that. The paradox referred to is that in order for these great things to take place we rely on a hugely expensive two week sporting event. It is like, to borrow some of your props, buying an expensive sports car in order to pop to the shops (for your lottery ticket). The expense of the sports car/ Olympics is justified to the wife/ taxpayer on the basis of somewhat spurious value assessments such as maybe winning the Camelot / international tourism lottery.

    What is the point? We all know deep down that the real point is national pride/ midlife crisis. We know, in London’s case, that the Westfield would have happened with or without the Olympics, ditto the transport links, ditto cheap housing. What we wouldn’t have had are some really nice sports facilities – which are sometimes a boon and oftentimes not – and a reclaimed wasteland- which last was hardly a foreign concept in pre-Olympics Britain. Does that justify the expense? Personally, and as I have (unsuccessfully, obviously) tried to communicate, there is great value in “a flowering of artistic, architectural and civic creativity and, derived from it, a sense of cultural identity and pride.” As above there are some hits and some misses – chief among them being the inane Orbit. And it does seem a shame that the Aquatics centre is ruined by temporary seating. The problem is not that it is temporary (you have inferred that from nowhere) but that is ugly and as such limits, during its fortnight of fame, the potential value mentioned above.

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