By playing host to one of the world’s biggest sporting events Olympic host cities have the opportunity to kick-start significant programmes of investment and change. Change that not only delivers the requisite sporting arenas (hopefully on time and on budget!) but also regenerative ripples across cities, regions and even the whole host country.

The idea of ‘legacy’ externallinkis fundamental to the overall success of the Games and is held dear by the tournament’s governing body - the International Olympic Committee (IOC) externallink. So what legacy can we expect from Brazil, just days ahead of the 2016 Games? We mull the success of London 2012 and the road from Rio…

The bigger picture

We explored the race to Rio in a feature article a few years back and today, on the ground,  you don’t have to walk far to see evidence of new projects - even discounting the venues that will shortly be centre stage for performing athletes, Games visitors and a global audience of televised sports fans across the world.

It’s boom time for new museums, hotels, public spaces, real-estate and corporate structures and the city’s port has been radically transformed in what local officials are describing as the “locomotive” for Rio’s modernisation process. Speaking just days before the Opening Ceremony IOC president Thomas Bach was, as you’d expect, keen to highlight these successes.

"The legacy of these Games is taking shape. I was at the inauguration of the Metro Line 4 externallink yesterday that will serve some 300,000 passengers every day. The complete renovation of the Port Maravilla, in the historical centre of Rio, has created some 9000 jobs for the population. The handball venue will become four public schools. The canoe slalom will become a park in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Rio. All this is summarised in a report that we received from a renowned foundation (Fundacao Getulio Vargas) which says that Rio, thanks to the Games, has enjoyed a greater and more equitable growth than any other city in Brazil over the last seven years," he said.

Tempered ambitions

In recent years Rio has undoubtedly benefited from a programme of huge events with the potential to bring investment. The tally includes the Pan American Games in 2007, a 2012 UN conference on sustainable development, the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day in 2013 and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The programme serves as an interesting counterpoint to decades of wrangling and stagnation following government reorganisation in the 60s.

Even given the catalyst of events, there’s evidence that well intentioned ambitions have been tempered by harsher realities. On this score the clean-up of Rio’s Guanabara Bay and the ambitious Carioca Living project to provide urban infrastructure to 260 favelas come 2020 are yet to begin and the aim of planting 34 million trees to offset environmental damage has also yet to start.

Back in 2013 people took to the streets in protest - casting doubt on the events bringing 'meaningful regeneration' and critical of private self-interest outweighing any public good. All this at a time when foreign investments were becoming harder to come by. That Rio has delivered at all against this backdrop is, arguably, impressive but there is a feeling by some that more could have been achieved.

Venue viability

Sporting venues themselves, whether purpose-built or refurbished for the Games have the potential to be re-used (for sport or otherwise) once the Games have finished. To achieve this ambition the IOC advises that projects need to be "functional, sustainable and adequately scoped for future use at the times of inception".

Host countries have enjoyed varied success when it comes to delivering on this ambition. Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium (constructed for the 1912 games) is still in sporting use over 100 years later. The arenas constructed for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer have hosted several major sporting events and broadened out to host a range of concerts and cultural events. The second Winter Youth Olympic Games will also play out there later this year.

Some Olympic venues have also been converted for alternative use once the Games have finished, including the speed skating Oval that was constructed for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which was converted into a multi-sport and wellness facility, providing an ongoing recreation legacy for community health and sport development.
Today, bid cities are also using temporary, re-locatable venues, which can be disassembled and used elsewhere in the host country – or even recycled – once the Games have been staged. The water polo centre and basket ball arenas at London 2012 serving as examples of these kinds of venue - indeed only eight of the capital's venues were permanent new-builds.

The London 2012 Legacy

Velodrome and
Velo Park
Now indoor and outdoor
cycling trails
Aquatics centre
Now a public swimming pool following the removal of the winged seating stands.
Olympic Stadium Now home to West Ham FC and others following the reconstruction of the roof and removal of temporary amenity huts.
Eton Manor wheelchair
tennis and aquatic training
Now the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.
Olympic village Now residential.
Handball arena Now home to sporting, performance, community and cultural events.
Media centre Now used as a business hub/ digital quarter and home to BT Sport.
Orbit observation tower Continues.
Olympic Park Now used as a public park.
Basketball arena Designed to be temporary and sold for re-use. Site used for residential use.
Water polo arena
Designed to be temporary and dismantled with components reused.
Riverbank arena Now forms part of the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.
North and South Parks The North park landscape has matured to deliver verges and wildflower embankments, South Park serves as a boulevard of "outside rooms".

So, what legacy Brazil when it comes to sporting infrastructure?

The main Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca spans over a million square meters with significant investment delivering infrastructure to underpin 16 Olympic and 10 Paralympic sports venues, broadcast and press centres and a hotel.

Critics are quick to highlight the lack of a clear plan for adaptation after the Olympics and lambast the fact that retrofitting existing structures rather than building from scratch seemingly went unexplored.

Others point to the fact that the design does little to tackle the inequalities and segregation already chronic in Rio and claim that, inevitably, the park will fall to mega real-estate development already very apparent in the west of the city.

The Athlete's Village, Ilha Pura (Pure Island) consists of a number of gated communities, home to 3,600 two to four bedroom apartments across 31 'towers', each 17 storeys high. Again critics have rounded on the designer/developer describing the complex as a missed opportunity with little architectural or urbanistic quality, something incongrous with the sense of place and history.

It is perhaps unfair to expect a sporting catalyst to solve the inherent inequalities present in Brazil's cities but there does seem to be a palpable sense of missed opportunities and fears around the inevitable gentrification of core schemes while inequalities remain.

Venue concerns

The true legacy, of course, will become apparent in the fullness of time. More pressing matters, just days ahead of the Games, centre on potential safety concerns.

The Independent reported on bad weather causing a sailing ramp to collapse externallink while an AP investigation raised  concerns about levels of water contamination. Elsewhere, as athletes started moving into their accommodation reports claimed that the man behind the construction of the Olympic Village had been relived of his position and Australian team chief Kitty Chiller went so far as to say that the village was “simply not safe or ready”.

Whether reports describe the inevitable teething problems of any major event or something more substantial is hard to tell. As the world's attention focusses on Brazil the quality of the "show" will, to some extent, determine the regenerative path that will be followed in the years ahead. Either way, it seems likely that future host nations will have much to learn from Rio - history has shown that interest persists long after the athletes have gone home.