Could Auckland host the Olympics?

by Lincoln University / 20 October, 2016
Auckland is set to host the World Masters Games next year, but could it pull off the Olympics? And would it want to?
Eden Park during the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Photo/Getty Images
Eden Park during the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Photo/Getty Images


Auckland. City of growing homelessness; city with such a boom in property values that even people on average incomes fear they will never be able to own a home. City where many people — teachers, nurses, office workers, people in the arts and entertainment industries, the very construction workers we desperately need to make the city bigger — worry about how much longer they’ll be able to afford living here.

Auckland will host the World Masters Games in April next year. That’s 25,000 athletes from 100 countries competing in 28 sports and 45 disciplines. On a participatory basis the games are the biggest multi-sport event in the world.

That’s right, they’re bigger than the Olympics. So does that mean if Auckland can stage a successful Masters Games, it will be able to stage the Olympics too? And what has the housing crisis got to do with any of that? What, for that matter, has the work of Lincoln University’s Dr Andreas Wesener, a lecturer in urban design at the university’s School of Landscape Architecture, and environmental scientist Dr Suzanne Vallance got to do with either the housing crisis or sports extravaganzas?

The Rugby World Cup in 2011 was a financial bonanza for Auckland, if we define “Auckland” as “Irish bars, people who rented out their homes and shops selling Tongan flags”. But by and large restaurants missed out on the fan frenzy and so did a great number of other businesses.

It’s what always happens with big sports events: the host city gets all excited about the potential, then the fans turn up and they don’t spend money the way they were supposed to. And afterwards, the city counts the cost and wonders what to do with those smart new venues that are not suited to its regular sporting programme.

In 2011, Eden Park soaked up all the capital — financial and political — for a great Auckland stadium, and yet it’s badly suited to almost every event it hosts, and it’s unlikely anyone will do anything about it. Still, that’s not as bad as Athens, where stadiums and swimming pools from the 2004 Olympics are derelict.

The Olympics have a bigger problem than that: the cost. In 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics cost a mere US$320 million and made a profit — the first for a Summer Olympics since 1932. They did it because they didn’t build any new stadiums, and they privatised the risk and rewards. The city was not saddled with crippling debt, but the Games themselves were smothered in advertising. It was the McDonald’s Olympics.

Four years later, Seoul spent more than 10 times as much and the cost topped a billion dollars for the first time. Barcelona (1992) pulled it back under a billion but Sydney (2000) set a new mark of US$5 billion, then Athens (2004) came in at US$15 billion and Beijing (2008) at an extraordinary US$44 billion. The sport was great; the event had become ridiculous.

London, four years ago, proudly brought the cost down again, to around US$11.5 billion, before Russia spent an extraordinary US$51 billion on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (In case that propaganda spectacle has prompted you to wonder about another, the cost of Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, in today’s terms, was the equivalent of US$10 billion.)

The cost of the Rio Games isn’t known yet, but the government contribution is estimated at US$12 billion. The full cost could be three times as much.

This is very good news for Auckland. Why? Because it’s completely crazy. It used to be said that only a few cities could afford the Olympics. But the reality is that no cities can. We know this. In the 21st century, it’s appalling for any city to spend tens of billions of dollars in the way Olympic host cities have.

So here’s an idea for Auckland and its housing crisis, and the Olympics and the Lincoln University academics who inspired this whole rumination. It’s based on what Suzanne Vallance says planners should do and what Andreas Wesener sees as the potential of community-initiated activities.

Let’s use the World Masters Games to invert the usual planning process, by engaging local communities from the start. From the ground up. Don’t tell them what to do; ask them to tell you. What new transport and housing will we need? What venues? What can we reinvent? Pretend the Masters Games are the Olympics: how do we stage a wonderful sporting spectacle without bleeding every last cent out of the city?

Of course, some of that is not doable in the time available. But it will be if it’s done virtually. If we do pretend the Masters Games are the Olympics and do the whole thing as a kind of computer game, we could then roll bits of it out in real time, come April next year, and start thinking about the real Olympics as well.



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