In late 2010, I volunteered as part of the organizing committee for the 2500th anniversary of the Athens Classic Marathon. The legendary road race stems from the story of Pheidippides, a messenger in Ancient Greece, who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks' victory over the Persians.
Hundreds of people like myself gathered to support, feed, water and help participants as they ran uphill (the hardest uphill climb of any major marathon) to achieve their personal best. Many moments will stay with me forever, however, what I recall most fondly is the sense of pride among the citizens as they welcomed almost 10,000 runners, including their families and friends, to the city.
Still, despite the enthusiastic participation for the marathon that year, there was still a shadow cast from the last Olympic Games held in the city in 2004 that left behind many pieces of infrastructure and venues without future purpose or use. As an architect and a planner, I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t use some of those venues to house and gather athletes and families or incorporate them into the annual marathon?
I am a big fan of the Olympic Games. I love to explore the abandoned venues, wishing I had been there to see it in person. Unfortunately, large events like the summer and winter Olympic Games or world soccer tournaments often leave the host cities with the responsibility to cover the financial costs and the physical needs of the participants and spectators, which translates to new infrastructure being built without a long-term plan to sustain them.
There are many stories of host cities like Athens that failed to plan long-term or give continuity to the legacy left behind by the investment made. In 1992, two large events happened in Spain, leaving different outcomes in the cities of Seville and Barcelona.
The World Expo in Seville acted as a vibrant space for countries to showcase their best value, but soon faced a rapid decline following the exhibition. The city waited several years to redevelop and re-assign the venues to new use.
On the other hand, the summer Olympics held in Barcelona helped the city reconsider the urban structure and policies to face the transformation that would not only ‘beautify’ the city but also create an urban model for many other cities to follow with successful results.
So honestly, I was quite disappointed last year when Calgarians declined to host the winter Olympics in 2026 with the plebiscite results being 56 per cent against 44 per cent, effectively dropping the idea to pursue the bid. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to vote but I had already registered to volunteer in case it did happen. As a citizen and as a planner, I was excited at the idea of watching the city transform and become alive in the cold winter months.
Understandably, the financial costs of hosting such a large event mainly drew a negative response from the public, but in terms of urban planning, I only saw the benefits of strategically planning ahead for how the city could adapt for future infrastructure, improve public transportation and provide housing policies for an increasing population—to name a few.
Moreover, apart from being in the spotlight for few weeks and the benefits from increased visitors and deep-pocketed investors, one of the main reasons why cities pursue mass events is because of the legacy it entails. Although, while implementing the fast track transformation, like the Olympic Games, to solve urgent urban problems is not always the most successful path to future development i.e. abandoned infrastructure (such as Athens and Seville). I do believe that cities can take pride in bidding for mass events to lead the future transformation that truly leaves a legacy for sustainability, accessibility and environmental awareness. We can take a look at some representative cases from former host cities that worked towards these target areas.
Present and future generations can benefit from the introduction of resource innovation, permanency of the developments through continuous or adaptive use of the spaces, as well as best practices geared towards waste management, sustainable tourism and social responsibility.
According to a study published in 2009 , the 2008 Olympic Games was a major incentive for the Beijing government to adopt stringent measures to control pollution emissions and improve air quality standards in and around the city. The measurements showed not only a reduction of levels of pollution during the summer games but also in the following months after the festivities had ended.
While researching for this article, I found out that there wasn’t an official agreement between the International Olympic Committee and the Paralympic Committee until 2000. Today, making a city accessible for Paralympians and civilians with reduced mobility is a key component of securing a bid to host the Olympics or any mass participation event.
As described in this Atlas Lens article from 2016, "London’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games included a plan for integration of the Olympic and Paralympic games. In practice, this meant not only making the stadiums more accessible, but the city in general, especially the public transportation. London then, came up with an eight-point plan to make itself accessible."
I am more than 100 per cent sure that no city can go wrong when they prepare for a more accessible and inclusive future.
The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London—the awarded project at the 9A International Biennial of Landscape, Barcelona 2016—focused around the restoration of the River Lea. The park includes a northern environmental park and a southern festival park that showcases the Olympic Gardens. The park was described by the mayor of London as “the winner of the games” and in general, the London games were recognized as the ‘greenest games in history’.
The legacy of the Queen Elizabeth park will be held by generations to come, as one of the biggest European parks created in over 150 years, bringing social awareness towards the protection of the natural environment that once served as the meeting grounds for this massive event.
Taking into consideration these topics, as designers and planners, will definitely help in targeting controversial issues surrounding all mass events. But in the spirit of creating a sustainable heritage for our cities—governments, citizens and investors can establish a sort of Olympic truce for planning, and start from a neutral ground where everyone can evaluate together the pros and cons to create a better natural and built environments for the generations to come.