Friday, February 7, 2014

New Olympic Event: Toderian versus Putin

Another Olympics is underway.  For the next two weeks, we’ll be reintroduced to sports that will seem compelling while the competition is underway, only to then be forgotten for another four years.

But there is one sport that has held my interest for a long time and will continue to do so.  That is the challenge of reconciling Olympic facilities with the communities in which they’re located.

Finding a nexus between urbanism and the Olympics may seem a stretch, but over the past few decades city building has become a key selling point for many Olympic bids.  From Barcelona in 1992 to Sydney in 2000 to London in 2012, the prospect of leaving the host city a stronger and more functional place has been a factor in securing the Olympic bid and in convincing the citizens to accept the financial costs.

But blending urbanism and the Olympics is neither an easy nor a quick task.  Although it required two decades for the rips in the civic fabric to heal, Barcelona is now considered perhaps the most successful Olympics at advancing the host city.  The Sydney Games provided some civic benefits, but the location of the venues at the urban fringe limited the value of those benefits.  And it is far too early to judge how the aggressive city building aspects of the London Games will succeed.

Meanwhile, the Beijing Games of 2008, with their focus on dramatic architecture with little thought to the long-time use of the buildings, may be the greatest failure yet of Olympic city building.

Looking back at my archives, I find to my surprise that I wrote five posts around the time of the London games about the Olympics and urbanism.  In reviewing them, I find that they stand up well, mostly because I found great articles to link.  I wrote about the Olympics and the city, Olympic bidding, and three posts (1, 2, and 3) looking back at the London experience and the Olympics in general.

But all the Olympics noted above were Summer Games.  And there is a fundamental difference between Summer Games and Winter Games.  The Summer Games are the far bigger endeavor, but the sports don’t have geographic limitations and can usually be located in the larger cities that typically locate at lower elevations.  In larger metropolitan areas, Beijing’s failure notwithstanding, there are more opportunities to retask Olympic buildings to community uses.

The Winter Games, which require convenient access to an alpine area, offer a more restricted pool of civic candidates.  And the smaller size of many cities in the pool makes the assimilation of the Olympic structures more problematic.

Nowhere is this challenge more clearly delineated than between Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014.  Vancouver, favorably located close to world-class Whistler ski area and with a metropolitan population of 2.3 million was able to mount the Olympics for a cost of $7 billion and was able to absorb the Olympic facilities with only a few hiccups.

In comparison, Sochi also had good alpine proximity but had a population of only 350,000, barely larger than Santa Rosa here in the North Bay.  Over $51 billion was required to ready Sochi for the Olympics.

Nor are cost and population are the only differences.  Vancouver committed to doing the Olympics on a financially frugal basis.  Existing settings were touched up where possible.  And every newly constructed structure had a post-Olympic use determined before the first shovel of dirt was turned.  Brent Toderian, who was the Vancouver Planning Director during the Olympic planning and who has often been cited in this blog, is perhaps the best spokesman for the Vancouver approach.

In an article published in the days after the London Olympics, Toderian lays out much of what made the Vancouver effort successful.  He provides a roadmap to civic involvement, creative re-use, and planning processes that should have informed all future Olympic efforts.

But the roadmap described by Toderian seems to have been misplaced by Vladimir Putin, who instead decided to use the Sochi Olympics to showplace the return of a post-Soviet Russia to the world stage.  If his goal was to show grandiose but unevenly executed visions, cronyism, and missed deadlines, he succeeded brilliantly.  And at only seven times the cost of the Vancouver Games.

This photo survey of seven years of site development illustrates the mixture of success and misdirection.  Overall, the sense is that the Sochi facilities are more likely to go the way of the Beijing Bird’s Nest than of the Vancouver Convention Center, pictured above, which was a key Olympic venue and remains in daily use.

And early stories coming out of Sochi about the incompleteness of many new facilities further illustrates the Sochi missteps.  As Katie Baker of Grantland writes, many of the early arrivals in Sochi are reporters who are accustomed to the occasional rough edge.  But as spectators begin arriving, expecting a first-class Olympic experience and finding some of the Sochi shortfalls, the spotlight may be further shifted away from the athletes.

Overall, the conclusion is unavoidable that Vancouver played the game well, further cementing the city in the firmament of urbanism.  Sochi is nowhere close.

I don’t expect to approach the five posts that I wrote about the London Games, but I will return to the Sochi Games at least one more time.  And, my concerns about the city planning aspects notwithstanding, I also expect to enjoy much of the competition.  Who’s willing to provide my quadrennial reintroduction to curling?

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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