The Olympic (Affordable) Housing Legacy and Social Responsibility

By Lenskyj, Helen Jefferson | Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research, October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Olympic (Affordable) Housing Legacy and Social Responsibility


Lenskyj, Helen Jefferson, Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research


In the last two decades, a number of global trends have had the effect of increasing the gap between North and South, have and have-not countries, and have and have-not populations within western countries. These trends are reflected in the growing global problem of homelessness in some of the most economically prosperous countries in the world, including the United States, Canada and Australia.

The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), a grassroots group established in 1998, convincingly documented its claim that homelessness in Canada should be considered a national disaster. (1) Included in their evidence was the fact that the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had reviewed Canada's compliance and issued the strongest criticism that any western nation had received for its human rights record, especially )n relation to the country's failure to prevent homelessness. In the same vein, activists at the international level have recognized that homelessness constitutes an international disaster.

Hallmark Events and Their Legacies

There is an extensive body of literature documenting the detrimental effects of hallmark events like the Olympics and World Fairs on homeless and under-housed populations. (2) In light of this evidence, it could be argued that the burden of proof falls on Olympic bid and organizing committees to demonstrate two outcomes: firstly, that hosting the Olympics will not exacerbate existing housing problems, and secondly, that a meaningful legacy of affordable housing will result.

A legacy, according to dictionary definitions, is something "material or immaterial" that is "bequeathed or handed down by predecessors." In Olympic industry rhetoric, legacy refers to infrastructure, housing and sporting facilities that are represented as some kind of windfall profit for the host city, with the significant contribution of public money to Olympic projects--usually totaling at least 50% of the budget--often overlooked in this kind of calculation.

A related and somewhat more realistic representation of Olympic legacy uses the language of urban renewal, with the Olympics positioned as a "catalyst" for city-building and redevelopment. Similarly, the "catalyst" effect is said to bring about improvements in infrastructure, most notably public transportation. Admittedly, as I've told numerous audiences recently, Sydney's bus and train systems have seen significant improvements since Sydney 2000, but I argue that it reflects badly on city and state politicians to have waited until the last few years of the 20th century to make much-needed changes to these systems. For decades, Sydney's working class and poor people who didn't own cars received a clear message: your public transportation needs are only worthy of politicians' attention when Sydney is expecting an influx of big-spending Olympic tourists who will rely on trains and buses to travel to Olympic sites. I would make the same case in relation to the recent improvements in public transit in Athens that were part of Olympic preparations.

Housing in Olympic Host Cities

In the last two decades, the vast majority of bid and host cities have shared a common problem: a housing and homelessness crisis. Examples include Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Sydney, Beijing, Toronto, Athens, Turin, New York and Vancouver. In most cases, bid and/or organizing committees from these cities included housing in their list of Olympic legacy promises. However, the actual post-Olympic situation in recent host cities suggests that an affordable housing legacy is unlikely to materialize, and that, in fact, conditions for homeless and inadequately housed people are exacerbated by the hosting of the Olympics. (3)

The last few years have seen significant research evidence to support my earlier critiques of promised housing legacies in Olympic host cities. These include Antonia Cassellas's doctoral research on Barcelona (4) and a special issue of Progressive Planning edited by Richard Milgrom. …

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