This year is the summer Olympics, so major sports are on everyone’s mind, and of course the Superbowl just concluded in the US. Both are major sporting events, requiring a host city to open its doors to athletes, thousands of fans, and the huge popup network of services that support them, from athlete housing to food stands to souvenir booths. Being a host city is considered an honour and cities compete heatedly for the privilege, investing millions as they strut their stuff for the committees that make decisions about where to hold these kinds of events, and once they land the contract, they’re looking at millions and sometimes billions of dollars worth of investment to meet high standards set by themselves, hosting committees, and the larger community.
The problem is that being a host city is actually rather terrible, as evidenced repeatedly in the case of the Olympic Games, where city after city has emerged from the experience feeling a sharp sting. While every cycle brings out a new round willing to take the bait, there does seem to be a dwindling interest in being the first one to jump to volunteer, as a growing number of cities are realizing that the costs involved are rather daunting, and that hosting sports isn’t just expensive — it can be actively damaging.
Cities taken over by the Olympics typically build vast stadiums, athlete villages, hotel complexes, and other support infrastructure, at a very high cost even with collaboration from developers. These investments are justified not just on the grounds that the city needs to put its best foot forward, but in the belief that the facilities will be used in the future, making them an excellent long-term plan — for every city needs arenas, housing, hotels, and similar infrastructure. The problem is that this usually isn’t the case, and many of these spaces sit vacant until they can be razed and replaced with something else. Sometimes they’re not suitable for repurposing, sometimes no one is interested in taking them over, sometimes former host cities realise that the maintenance involved is too much.
There are also typically very high social costs to being a host city. In nearly every Olympics, Superbowl, and other major event, one piece of news repeatedly iterates itself: Low-income people, working class people, and the homeless community are squeezed out. They’re forcibly relocated, their homes are torn down, they’re told they are not wanted, cities pass aggressive ordinances to make it hard for them to live and work in the areas they call home. They’re displaced not just for construction, but also for the purpose of making cities look cleaner and nicer for visitors, because no one wants to see children starving in gutters or people living in falling-down tenement buildings.
Theoretically, cities promise, they’ll be restoring the communities they invade, and people will be able to return home. In practice, that doesn’t happen. Once displaced, people don’t have the resources to return, and often there’s nothing to return to. Those ordinances used to actively discriminate against them remain on the books, too — like sit/lie laws designed to discourage homeless people from lingering in desirable areas. Consequently, the social fabric of cities is forever changed and while some view this as a positive outcome because it gets rid of all the icky and unwanted, it’s actually something that comes at a very high social and political cost, in addition to being morally repulsive.
This sets aside the baroque level of inconvenience suffered by ordinary citizens, a subject that came up with the Superbowl, where a ‘fan village’ was established in San Francisco even though it was miles from the stadium. The organising committee demanded the right to effectively take over lower Market, completely disrupting the lives of people who live and work in the area. While the region is heavily weighted towards the financial industry, a wide range of companies do business there, and the transit hubs in the area are also really important, with ferries, BART, and MUNI alike all relying on settings like Embarcadero Station to get people where they need to go and facilitate transit transfers — as for example if people need to get to Caltrain so they can get down the Peninsula, or catch a ferry to get to downtown Oakland.
As if completely disrupting downtown wasn’t enough, the organising committee demanded that the city remove the overhead wires used by MUNI, because they were aesthetically unappealing. In the months leading up to the event, citizens were furious, as well they should have been — information about who would bear the cost was unclear, and of course it would take weeks to take the wires down and then reinstall them at the cost of millions, assuming no hitches along the way, which is never a good idea. Citizens understandably wanted to know why their ordinary lives should be disrupted to fit the whims of a sporting event, given that MUNI is a critical public resource — removing part of the lines would mean having to seek alternate transit, potentially being substantially late to work, and putting a lot more cars on the road because people would have no alternatives, which is the last thing you want at a sporting event where there are already an abnormal level of vehicles around. All to create a pleasing overhead aesthetic for people staying in the city for a week.
These are the kinds of things that host cities have to put up with to accommodate the people who throng to them to attend sporting events. And I don’t begrudge fans, or athletes, or the desire to hold big events like the Olympics and the Paralympics, both of which provide opportunities to see the world’s most talented and skilled athletes competing against each other in an amazingly cooperative venue. At the same time, though, there has to be a better way to do this, one that doesn’t completely wreck everyone’s lives for months or even years.
Image: football team takes the field, H. Michael Miley, Flickr