Prof offers perspective on hosting Olympics


The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, may have ended on Sunday, but hosting Olympic Games can affect cities for years to come, according to Julian Beinart, professor of architecture and author of several papers on the subject.

"The Games bring the host city to the world -- through television and other media -- and they bring the world to the city in the form of tourists. It's a giant transient event that alters urban life economically, socially and politically," Beinart said.

A specialist in the form and design of cities, Beinart (M.Arch. 1956) has worked on urban design projects in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and Asia. For more than 20 years, he has studied the effects on cities of hosting the Olympics.

He began as a fan. A native of Cape Town, South Africa, Beinart attended his first Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952, becoming immediately "caught up in the athletics, seeing the world, and in this event that's a 'time outside of time,'" he said.

The modern Olympics were born in 1932 in Los Angeles, which hosted Games that featured a centralized physical spectacle, a constructed media image and a new town for athletes, Beinart said.

Those Games were an economic and public relations success even though "worldwide depression, prohibition against alcohol in the U.S. and long travel distances kept many countries from attending. In addition, their investment in a 110,000-seat stadium paid off, since it was reused in 1984," he said.

The dark side of the modern, media-constructed Olympics occurred in Berlin in 1936, he noted: Hitler staged the Olympics to market the Third Reich. Anti-Semitic signage was taken down, but Oranienburg, a concentration camp just north of Berlin, continued operation, he said.

Future hosts of the Olympics -- Beijing in 2008, Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012 -- might look to history to anticipate difficulties, he said. Olympics tend to be particularly challenging for cities in which infrastructure, such as transportation and hotels, is undeveloped.

"Tokyo, Moscow, Seoul and Barcelona all used hosting as an incentive for massive city rebuilding. But such speeding up has both positive and negative value. In some cities, urban parks may be lost to new sports facilities," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 2006 (download PDF).


Topics: Architecture, Economics, Urban studies and planning

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