Forging a lasting Olympic legacy
A call for purposeful responsibility and multilateral cooperation
Georgie Young is a Paris-based Australian and a Senior Account Manager at 17 Sport. Her paper “A New Olympic Legacy? The Case of Paris 2024” is forthcoming for publication by the International Olympic Academy. As Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony gets underway, Georgie shares her reflections on the mythic status the Games has, and how the IOC can continue striving, alongside all stakeholders, to align purpose alongside core delivery to ensure a positive legacy in host cities and beyond.
I still remember the moment when Sydney was awarded the hosting rights to the 2000 Olympic Games. It was 1993, I was in primary school, and the euphoria around me — both in the broader, country-level sense, and within my immediate household — was abundant and edifying. I remember my mother telling me that seeing the Olympics in my home country was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the effect was such that this grand event seems elusive and mythic and (as a one-time, wannabe athlete without the requisite talent) completely out of reach. But Wednesday mid-morning I learned, thanks to the congratulations of my friends via WhatsApp and the explosion of my Twitter feed, that my generation, at least, is going to experience it twice. The Games of the XXXV Olympiad are going to Brisbane.
I’ve thought a lot about the hosting of the Olympic Games in the four years that I’ve been in France, as the awarding of the 2024 Games to Paris took place shortly after my arrival in the city. During my Masters degree at HEC Paris, I wrote my thesis on the concept of legacy in the Olympic Games, examining what Games organising committees and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who award the hosting rights, can do to make hosting a less destructive and costly process for the cities who agree to host.
At the time, in September 2017, the IOC made history by making the first-ever double attribution of hosting rights, in awarding the 2024 Games to Paris, and the 2028 Games to Los Angeles — the only other final bidder. Midway through 2019, during the 134th IOC Assembly — where IOC members meet to discuss the key issues facing the movement and where the awarding of hosting rights for future meetings and future Olympiads typically take place — significant changes to the bidding process were made in an attempt to make the cost of bidding and the cost of hosting more efficient. (One doesn’t need to look too far to find examples of hosting gone awry, but for those who are not familiar, Montreal 1976, Athens 2004 and Rio 2016 all make for some interesting reading).
The reforms involve the removal of the host city evaluation commission for each Olympiad, which was replaced by a Future Hosts Commission — where any interested host could express interest and work hand-in-hand with the commission to develop their bid and determine when it fits best for them to take on hosting. At least, I think that was the intention. These changes were encouraged by Australian Olympic Committee President and IOC Vice President John Coates, who also announced that potential hosts would be asked to host a referendum to ensure local community support for hosting, before submitting a potential bid. Not only has this not been the case in Brisbane, but to my mind, this has been an even less transparent awarding process than those which came before.
The IOC may be doing what’s best for the movement, but I’m not yet sure that these interests directly align with those who are willing to host. Just look at the battles faced by the organisers of the Tokyo Games, where polls show public sentiment is firmly against proceeding in the Covid context, and sponsors are pulling planned advertising campaigns in the face of public opposition. Organising a multisport event featuring ten thousand athletes and an entourage of support crew, officials and key stakeholders in the context of a global pandemic is difficult enough, without having to constantly fend off the naysayers, and the kinds of missteps they could well do without. Kudos to those who have managed to bring it to bear so that the sports fans among us can live out the sixteen days of magic sporting moments that the Olympic Games also represents.
The Olympic movement has made significant progress; equal athlete representation between men and women — both in numbers and as flag bearers — for the very first time, improved representation of women within the IOC itself, significant commitments from forthcoming host cities to deliver responsible, carbon neutral events, and the news that Brisbane will be contractually bound to do so (let us, for a moment, set aside the other complications and externalities that this might balance). In France, rather than dividing their teams into Olympic and Paralympic teams, this year — for the first time ever — the emphasis has been on one single (united) team, while the US Olympic Committee renamed themselves the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee in 2019, reinforcing the united and inclusive approach for all athletes, regardless of their sport, their discipline or their classification. But, as with many things, there is almost always more to be done.
Like Paris and LA before them, Brisbane built its bid on the basis of no major infrastructure requirements, where 84% of Games venues and facilities will be existing or temporary structures — as they well should be, after the neighbouring Gold Coast region hosted the Commonwealth Games just three years ago. It also indexed hard on the promise of a legacy for the people of Brisbane and the greater southern Queensland region. Legacy refers to the interim and lasting outcomes of hosting an event. While the IOC defines this as the positive outcomes, evidently events such as the Olympics can leave lasting damage just as easily as it can leave behind a redeveloped East London or a thriving tourist destination on the northeastern coast of Spain. For this reason, those who espouse the all-conquering magic of legacy as a soothe to all possible ills, must tread carefully.
Defining a vision is lovely and unifying and inspiring to the masses, but making the commitments necessary to live and breathe will be essential to delivering said vision. Ensuring alignment of this vision (sport can change everything!) with the mission (deliver the 16 days of Olympic competition and 13 days of Paralympic competition on time and on budget) is paramount. More specifically, aligning the interests of these two elements will be essential to balancing the tension that can otherwise exist between nice-to-haves (temporary swimming pools in local parks to deliver swimming lessons to as many children as possible in the years before and after the Games) and must-haves (the construction of the Olympic Aquatic Centre completed in time for the Games to begin) of hosting this sporting extravaganza. If the balance of the tension is misplaced, the nice-to-haves are no more and suddenly the much-promised legacy is out the door.
Striving for this level of purpose in the definition and delivery of their vision, mission and commitments need not remain the sole responsibility of Paris, Los Angeles, Brisbane and the other host cities to come in between and beyond. The IOC needs to lead the way, and it is incumbent upon all actors in the movement — sponsors, media rights holders, NOCs, IFs, governments, OCOGs, suppliers — to band together and act with the level of purpose, responsibility and cooperation that will be needed in order to achieve the kinds of changes to which legacy programs loftily aspire. The sceptics have been clamouring for it for years, and now the fans are demanding it too.