Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Recent book review: Olympic Cities

This is shortened version of a book review first published in the Annals of Association of American Geographers. Click on the title above to access the link.

The summer Olympics are a global spectacular event. The first games of the modern era, held in Athens in 1896 involved 241 athletes from only fourteen countries and limited press coverage. Over the years, the Games have grown in size, scope and international media coverage. Over 10,500 athletes from over 200 countries participated in the 2008 Games in Beijing. The Games are now the most watched events on television, with a truly global audience. The Olympic Games embody the increasing globalization of the world; they represent a significant regime of international regulation, provide a shared cultural experience and create important platform for economic globalization as transnational corporations advertise in and through the Games. The increasingly global Games are hosted by cities. The Games are a global event that unfold in a particular place. There is increased academic attention. The 2007 collection, Olympic Cities; City Agendas, Planning, and the World’s Games. 1896-2012, edited by John and Margaret Gold, . John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold is a very useful addition to the literature.

Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta. Photo: John Rennie Short

The book is in three parts; the first considers the four main elements of Olympics festivals. The editors note a shift in the Summer Games from a shared but minor partnership with World Fairs through to the centrality of the modern Games. Stephen Essex and Brian Chalkley look at the stages in the evolution of the Winter Games from minimal infrastructure transformation, 1924-1932, through growing infrastructural demand to tools of regional development and large-scale transformations. The Olympics as cultural festivals is a less well know element. Margaret Gold and George Revill show ‘the cultural dimension of the games still struggles to gain significant international or even public recognition’ (pp. 81). They go on to point out that the Olympic Arts Festival can help to rebrand the city and encourage cultural tourism. The Paralympic Games are the most recent element of the modern Games. Their origins lie in the efforts of the staff of Stoke Mandeville hospital in England in the late 1940s to encourage physical therapy for paraplegics. The Stoke Mandeville Games took place in 1952. The Paralympics became part of the Summer Games in Rome 1960 and the 1964 Tokyo Games, then dropped only to reappear in Seoul in 1988 since when they have become part of every Summer Games. From 23 countries and 400 athletes in 1960 they have also grown; almost 4000 athletes from 150 countries will compete in the Beijing Paralympics. Part of London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Games was its commitment to make the Paralympic even more central to the Olympics festival.

Part 2 takes a more thematic look at the Games with separate chapters on financing, promotion, accommodating the spectacle and urban regeneration. As a very quick review they are useful, but readers looking for a closer examination of the costs and benefits, and the role of the games in urban renewal will have to look at more detailed studies.

Part 3 is a series of eight case studies: Berlin, Mexico City, Montreal, Barcelona, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London. The earliest is the Berlin Games of 1936 and one of the most important in terms of global spectacular and urban impacts. The subsequent selection is curious. We jump from 1936 to 1968 and some of the more recent Games are not considered. Another edition might want to include all the Games since 1968

This is a comprhensive collection that provides a historical perspective on the rise of the Olympics as a global event in held in particular cities, is suggestive of thematic issues and gives informative and detailed case studies. The issues of environmental sustainability and social justice are regularly addressed. It is an excellent addition to a growing literature on an event that embodies the global-national-urban nexus in all its complexities and paradoxes.