Towards a new Legacy

The first Olympics started in 776 BC and were held every four years. The period between these events was called the Olympiade, a period in which one prepared for the Olympics. Derived from these Classical Olympics, the Modern Olympics started in 1896. Pierre de Courbertin, initiator of the Modern Olympics,  conceived the event as the perfect medium for enhancing the harmonious physical and mental education for juveniles and as a form of bonding between different cultures. He was convinced that a sportive trail of strength would encourage generosity and chivalry. De Coubertin saw his philosophy of life as a means of socializing and fraternization: ‘Attending the Olympics cuases cooperation to a peaceful world on the basis of friendship and solidarity by means of a big sport event. If human beings from different countries would meet each other now and then, they would learn to respect one another. Each country is free to participate, regardless of the political convictions or outer appearances. Global politics and commerce should remain outside the Olympic arena.’ The main question, in order to understand the politics of the Olympics, would be how this initial statement relates to the current practice and what other factors contribute to the evolution. By understanding 100 years of the Olympic Movement we can find leads for the future legacy of the Olympics.


Next year in Beijing, 112 year after this initial statement, the priorities seem to occur slightly different and we seem to have difficulties to withdraw from the amazing spectacle. Costs: more than 9 billion dollars. Next to this economic reality the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demanded an improvement of China’s human rights. Unfortunately soon the impossibilities of this preconditions became visible when big parts of the city were demolished to make space for the Olympics. Thousands of people lost their homes without any amnesty. Secondly, the news spread that hundreds of children had to work in factories to prepare merchandise for next year’s Olympics.

Although it’s still about sports, the current practices reveal great changes in the intentions and character of the Olympics. This research, which derives from a timeline, focuses on explicating some structures, which consciously or subconsciously, direct or indirect influence the Olympics in what they are.

Ideology, representation, economy, effect

To get a clear picture of the complex mechanism of the Olympics I distinguish a number of main structures to: ideology, representation, economy and effect. Since the Olympics have arisen from a strong ideology, each BID starts with pronouncing an ideal idea, an ideology. Hundred years suffered this meant `brotherhood’, in 1976 `frugality’, in 2008 it will mean the ` the commitment up to improve of human rights ‘ and in 2012 it will be  aimed at `sustainability ‘.
From this ideology nearly directly a representation follows which falls apart in logos, images, campaigns, city branding, medals, architecture and post1 stamps. Although during the first decades money seemed to play no role the economic aspect started top play a more crucial role from the Olympics of Los Angeles in 1984 onwards. In some cases the economic growth even determined the ideology. The way the Olympics are the commitment and a healthier city, economy or population the outcome, has been considerably transformed. The beginning was especially focused on the short period impact, such as fraternisation of the athletes, thus nowadays the emphasis lies on the long period impact, which totally exceeds the Olympics itself. The research has been aimed on determining in which direction the politics of the Olympics will develop. Will we ever go back towards the initial idea of ‘fraternisation’ or will the Olympics be completely be handed over to commerce? We will see that the Olympics and its committee are able to be learn of the preceding editions. We will get insight in processes which have influenced the Olympics negatively and positive. And finally we will make a sketch of the future of the Olympics based on more than hundred years of Olympic development.

Roughly the transformation of the Modern Olympics can be divided in six phases:
1986–1932 ”The innocent Olympics”
1936–1948 ”The dark period”
1948–1968 ”Commencement medium era”
1972–1988 ”The political platform”
1992–2004 ”Commercialisation of the Olympics”
2008–>    ”Towards a new legacy”
Each phase it is described from the called categories: ideology, representation, economy and effect, so that they become mutually similar.

I - The innocent Olympics  1986–1932
During the heyday days of imperialism, Europe colonized a large part of the world, became the Modern Olympics became led. With the aim of a more stable world sport was considered as a catalyst for world peace. After a modest start the ideological thinking of Pierre the Courbertin started to increase its popularity amongst the Western community. With the slogan `participation is more important than the winning’ ran the number participating countries from 14 in 1896, on to 53 in 1932. During that time ideology and representation were close related. On some posters the athletes were represented winged as direct reference to the peace symbol. For the organising countries in this period the Olympics are frequently a side issue. The main focus most often lay at the celebration of a world Expo.

The Olympics seemed to have a monopoly on fraternisation, since more and more countries wanted to take part. However, the participating countries were strongly dependent on the location, because one  could travel only by means of intercontinental boat. Therefore the diversity of countries remained, because of this, limited. Peace and the Olympics went further hand in hand. Thus the game in 1916, was annulated because of the first world war. Hereafter an envelope arose in the way the Olympics could be used. When Antwerp got them in 1920, the Olympics were assigned to stimulate the reconstruction and redevelopment of the city. In this effort the power of the Olympics concerning infrastructure and the economic development were obviously exposed.

II - The dark period 1936-1948
The Olympics of 1936 were a turning point in history. Adolf Hitler to carry out his national- socialist policy. This propagating power of the Olympics became completely abused by its representation. At the traditional opening ceremonies, next to the general Olympic symbols there were also a number of Nazi-symbols used. The Olympic flame was transported by torch in relay race from Greece to the Reichssportfeld in Berlin. All Olympic accommodations were provided with dozens of Nazi-flags with swastikas. The cineaste Leni Riefenstahl was appointed to make a film concerning the event. The film `Olympia’ can be labelled as propaganda, but it also pioneered in a number of techniques which are now still used at filming sport events. To gain as many victories as possible the German government provided its athletes with anabolic steroids and testosterones  . This assertiveness and ambition also became apparent in the immense infrastructure which had been constructed for the Olympics. This dark period in the history of the Olympics had a dubious social impact. For the first time its primary aims were exceeded clearly by political aims.

III – The media era  1948–1968
On the outbreak of World War II the Olympics were annulated twice. Meanwhile due to technical innovations the medial possibilities increased. With the early product of the first broadcasting during the Olympics of 1936 the media era was rung in.  Because of this `Visibility in the world’  became a new ideology of the candidate cities. The fast increase of the media had a strengthening impact on the Olympics: the costs increased, but also the amount of boycotts.  In 1956, the ideology of the IOC concerning world peace and ‘keeping politics outside the Olympic arena’ appeared far from reality when they decide to continue the Olympics because of a expected war of the organising country with its neighbouring country. Economy and representation become more and more important. In 1964, the first Olympics in Asia are organised by Tokyo. The drive of a city to put itself on the world map became a huge logic in itself and with a budget of twenty-six million the organisation became impeccable. The sport accommodations were perfect, there was an impressive stadium, a giant Olympic swimming pool and a splendidly Olympic village. These Olympics were  a ‘turning point’. They caused a decrease of the amount of biddings because countries started the realize themselves the financial risks and the doubtful benefits.

IV - the political platform 1972–1988
The Cold War and the bad economic situation placed a shadow over the Olympics. The Munich Olympics were negatively influenced by a terrorist hostage drama in which 17 people died. With the legendary words “The Olympics must go on” the  IOC President Avery Brundage would continue the Olympics. Nevertheless, because the Olympics suffered from increasing political pressure as a response the economic aspects were to become the most important criteria.  ‘The sober Olympics’ made their entrance. Boycotts started to predominate the event, by which the political power of the Olympics became more visible. This led to the fact that only Los Angeles bid to become the organiser of the 1984 Olympics. For the first time in history the organisation laid in the hands of businessmen. These Olympics were an unprecedented economic success with large consequences on the future. On a marketing strategic manner L.A. put itself smartly on the world map.

Iconographic architecture began to develop more strongly and form its own visual language that was no longer directly linked to the original ideology. The desirable visibility of a city is immediately translated into imposing buildings. An aspect that previously had been associated with the World Exhibitions.
Despite the fact that Montreal had in 1976 earned the title of organizing the most sober Olympics ever it turned into a financial fiasco. The organisation and the Olympics were plagued by boycotts and building scandals. After reaching this low point the IOC distinguished itself by admitting the fact that the Olympics were possibly too big. With this thought in mind Los Angeles took a totally different approach. Since L.A. was the only candidate to hosti the 1984 Olympics,  it was in a position to organize the Olympics in its own way entirely. Major sponsors entered into the Olympics and would no longer be missing from the Olympics. The Olympics operated as an economic engine.

V – Commercialization of the Olympics 1992–2004
With the Cold War leaving the Olympics in somewhat of a decline, the fall of the Iron Curtain allowed for no more boycotts to take place. For many countries 1989 meant the beginning of a new era with a liberal democracy. All things considered in the introduction of commerce, media and sensation a new phase dawned in which the economic aspect of the Olympics would play a greater and more visible role.

In 1992 the Olympics took place in Barcelona. The preparation trajectory had been carefully progressing since 1981: secret phase, filtering phase, we-are-the-Olympic-city-phase, rounding off phase, spin-off phase. Furthermore, the event was placed in a national context by means of the co-celebration with the world exhibition in Seville and Madrid as cultural capital of Europe. Barcelona used the Olympics to improve the city on a planological level: the association with art, creation of the ring, laying of the metro line and renovation of the Olympic stadium. During the planning thought was given to the meaning of the Olympics for the city with public space playing a major role in this. Barcelona also succeeded with the help of the extra investments in putting the city on the map and growing into a major tourist city in Europe. Spin-off seems even more important than the actual hosting of the Olympics. The Olympics have become a planological instrument and the commercialization continues apace. Many major brands wanted to be associated with the Olympics. In this way Coca Cola became the official drink after the Olympics in L.A. and Swatch has made itself responsible for the timekeeping.

Interim conclusion
From the innocence of the Olympics, as fraternatizing and pacifying event, via a period in which in a dubious way the propagandist power of the Olympics becomes clear, to a symbolism of the Olympics that surpasses its primary meaning and values, with the added entry of the media, this all means an increasing realisation of the power of the Olympics. Due to the worldwide visibility the Olympics have become politically sensitive, both for boycotts as well as for terrorism. This has major implications for the municipal configuration of the Olympic settlement where the emphasis has strongly come to focus on security. Due to the shadow of all other priorities than the sport itself the initial objectives of the IOC become increasingly less relevant. The low point of this gradual crisis was a corruption scandal within the IOC at the allocation of Salt Lake City.

VI – Towards a new legacy 2008-
Through the awareness of the decreasing influence of the IOC on the Olympics the following two Olympics it has in any case set a number of higher goals by which it can make sure its authority and ideology are observed. After a long period of economic ideologies the social ideologies again come to the fore. We see this in China with the enforced peripheral conditions of the improvement of human rights and in London to give a socially weak area sustainable embeddedness in the city. The representation is therefore location specific, as ‘global issues’ are worked out differently per city.

The Olympics are unthinkable without commercial support. Despite the idealistic statement that commerce has no place in the Olympic arena, millions of people watch the sports broadcasts in between advertising breaks. It is hard to imagine that the Olympics could be entirely funded by a government and therefore they will always be overshadowed by economic speculation and conflicts of interests that can veil the true core activities of the Olympics.

However idealistic the Olympics are presented, in 1936 a darker period began, whereby the Olympic idea was entirely misused for the benefit of national socialist propaganda. The Olympic arena was a political podium. To break free of this the Olympics focused shortly after that much more on the sports and less on the ideology. The Olympics in Seoul therefore went ahead while the host country continued its war with Korea.
During the Olympics in 1972 in Munich, the Olympics were for the very first time in its history the target of a terrorist attack. After the bomb explosions in Atlanta, the fear in Barcelona of a terrorist attack by ETA and as a result of 11 September the security claim has greatly increased. The Olympics in Athens had the air of a heavily guarded fort, anti-aircraft guns around the entire city and fighter jets continually in the air. Terrorism has become a global threat to capitalist society and has the same consequences for all candidates. Peace and freedom are therefore not so close at hand.

Since the advent of the media in Berlin, where one broadcaster sent out the Olympics via the television to the world, the media has become very influential. Since the entry of the media there has been significant growth in the Olympics. The number of bids is increasing rapidly: the budgets are becoming larger, the representation more important, the eventual results are more visible. The exponential growth has slowed down since the Olympics in Tokyo. The budgets and the organization have become so gigantic that the popularity of hosting the Olympic has reached its lowest point. The IOC estimated after these Olympics that they had perhaps become too big for their own good. There followed a period in which the Olympics would be run on a more sober budget. However, the media attention and representation drift were in such contradiction with this budget that this almost led to bankruptcy of the city in Montreal.

Tangible legacy
Through the years the Olympics have proven that they can put a city on the map like no other institution via architecture, municipal development, city marketing, sport infrastructure, economy and tourism. In brief, the Olympics ensure a visible legacy, apart from all the intentions from the sport itself. In some cases this means that a city remains with ‘white elephants’ (large unusable, but beautifully designed stadiums). In more successful cases something of lasting quality is added to the city. Not so much in terms of imposing buildings, but more especially in terms of infrastructure, public spaces, public transport, renovation and city repairs.

The most quoted example in the BIDs is the way in which Barcelona used the Olympic power to give its municipal tissue a sustainable economic impulse. For twenty-five years Barcelona has profited from the Olympic mechanism, has used its political power and has managed to implement its potential fully. Despite everything we know about it this has been anything but a transparent project. Complete transparency does not seem possible due to the fact that the complete population of the country in question must stand behind the idea if the BID is to succeed. The long term effects that Barcelona has broadly shown are widely implemented by the candidate and host cities.

Intangible legacy
It is claimed that despite the physical and representative violence connected to the Olympics, the Olympics generate invisible cultural values. If we consider what the IOC itself does it is particularly the embedding and organisation of certain values in a specific cultural context. The IOC is concerned with the development of a vision, whereby emphasis is placed on intercultural bonds by means of sport, equality of men and women, an aversion to exclusion, collective production, voluntary work, development of a healthy sport culture, the development of know-how and the carrying out of the peace message. It is precisely this explicit yet intangible effects that finally ensures the active power of the Olympics. This has been the major constant feature in the approximately hundred year history by which the image of the Olympics for many stands and has proved itself to be a very strong event.

We have also seen that during certain phases these fundamental points of departure were overshadowed by other priorities. The economic aspects, the eventual effects of the representative power is revealed above the integrity and modesty of the actual points of departure. It should be clear that presently the representation has reached its zenith with the Olympic settlement of nine billion in China and the more than likely superlative kick-off in London 2012.

The Olympic Movement
Partly because of this a turnabout has taken place in the role that the IOC would like to play in the whole occurrence. The ambition to place the ideal objectives of the Olympics at the top of the agenda again is as such formalized in the Legacy Statement of the IOC. This document,  established in November 2002, proposes that ”The possible long-term effects, the benefits for the community and the possible contribution of each bid to the community of the Olympic Movement should be considered as key aspects.” It therefore of importance that an effort is made to implement ”global issues” in ”local contexts,” so that the Olympics again have a clear role in society.

What can the Olympics mean?
What do these great words mean? And is this not based on incredible naivety against the background of an unruly political and economic reality?
On the basis of the conclusions we know that many different scenarios are possible considering the Olympics are strongly dependent on the tendencies in the world and in society. Commerce, media and politics will not leave the Olympic arena that quickly, but on the other hand IOC has the power to choose for other ways of emphasis. To determine and establish this kind of emphasis in terms of the extent to which they are realistic we must ask ourselves a number of fundamental questions.

How important is the economic aspect of the Olympics? How can it be that Europe has been able to organise the Olympics 14 times, while Africa and South America have never had this possibility? And this despite the fact that they could really use such an impulse. Are there forms of ‘light Olympics’ imaginable that are not per definition dependent on a capitally powerful country? Is it in fact feasible in the future to construct gigantic buildings that will only be used a couple of times? Are the peripheral conditions of the IOC (‘guarantees for a strong and responsible political structure and a strong national economy’) still adequate or are they in fact focused on countries that already have a certain status. Is it in that case not unthinkable that South Africa or Brazil may be permitted to organise the Olympics?
How is it possible that in the entire Olympic history an Islamic country has never been responsible for the organisation of the Olympics? And is it not in fact an ideal objective for the Olympics to make a gesture towards a culture that is only with difficulty accepted by the Western world?
Will the IOC be willing to adjust its peripheral conditions with regard to the possible new and higher goals of the Olympics? Can we not employ the powers of other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, the abortion boat or UNESCO together with the Olympics, so that they are less dependent on Coca Cola & Co?
How can we make global issues locally specific? Should we not stop flying in star architects, but instead give local architects a chance? Should local tasks not be indicative in terms of the design of the Olympics? Could an Olympic settlement not be built in Brazil from sustainable wood? And can there not be an Olympic swimming pool built in Africa also functioning as water-purification plant? Can there not be a new Olympic dyke built in the Netherlands?

What can the Olympic legacy mean to the Netherlands?
Instead of building the latest architectonic wonder of the world, the Olympics should be entirely involved in what they can make an exclusive claim. World Exhibitions and building exhibitions are purely meant to generate physical products and in its wake to enrich the knowledge of building methods. The Olympics are, in contrast, more a form of cultural production, whereby a certain ethical standard can be maintained.

We see Bono, Bob Geldof, Angela Jolie and Al Gore in their own individual ways traveling the world to create awareness for major global issues. With a few exceptions this remains a form of symbolic screaming, that in the best cases can change ways of thinking. The Olympics can of course go much further, because they possess organisational powers with which few NGOs can compete. Thereby they can cope perfectly with large bodies of media and complex issues, spread out over a long period. Call it positive propaganda.

Imagine that the Olympics, as well as the regular amount of sport, would also become involved in the major ‘global issues’: CO2 emission, deforestation, child labour, social segregation, sustainable energy. The Netherlands would in that case need to have good reasons to ‘win’ from Sao Paulo and Johannesburg. In that case the water problem must be placed high on the agenda.
In the Netherlands this will in 2028 be manifestly present without doubt, and will decide the political and spatial agendas. What is presently in mind is a floating Olympic city and large scale new water embankments that will keep the Olympic area, and of course the existing areas of habitation, dry.

If the Netherlands wants to have a chance within the new trends in the bidding process, then it must become intensely involved in major themes, whereby the Olympics can make a valuable contribution. For the coming 20 years the biggest opportunities and threats are: water management, rise in the sea level and soil subsidence, energy accumulation, in search of sustainable energy, planological divisions between cities, suburbs and nature, overweight, organisation of compactness and privatisation of the public sector.
The first Modern Olympics have been initiated in an era which was concerned with social segregation and therefore the implicit goals where set to contribute to a better world. Nowadays we suffer from other issues that are difficult to tackle, but therefore should be experimented with. The new legacy of the Olympics should (again) consider its powerful role in society and (again) truly engage with a positive contribution to the world. If, and only if, the Netherlands wants to make a chance in the future bidding processes, they at least also have to show this same engagement.

Name: Olympic Politics
Location: Rotterdam
Date: 2006
Client: RAVB
Status: Study