I'm not talking about any actual athletic feats nor ostentatious ceremonies. Rather, I want to pull out a few emblematic venues of what differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful Olympics. Understood, of course, that there are various fine lines and gray areas as to what constitutes "successful."
With that, the run up to the Olympics, the very British self-effacing cynicism, and the warning signs from Beijing and Athens venues left strewn about, vacant, and wanting for some life more than stray dogs, leaves the question of what might the next steps be for London?
Where Athens shines for wanton profligacy emblematic of pre- and post-Euro crash, and Beijing for, well, the words that come to mind are "overwhelming" and "oppressive," the Olympics (particularly the Summer - though Vancouver can't escape blame either for building an Olympic Village that a certain prominent urbanist/environmentalist argued to me would be the "example for future affordable housing." The city is $1 billion in debt on it.) have developed a reputation of Keynesianism on performance enhancing drugs.
The Olympics are, not just a way, but THE WAY for cities to boast and show off and exemplify themselves, meanwhile completely rebuilding certain parts of the city in a very globalist way, with international architects littering the world with their own very subjective visions. It's all very ironic. Cities attempting to present their viewpoint of a positive world captured at a certain moment in time, that is hardly ever truly indicative of the people. Or is it?
As we just pointed out, both Athens and Beijing perfectly embodied and thus predicted the plights of their nations (as China's story continues to play out). Sydney was largely forgettable in the way an entire Olympics could be set amongst "sprawl but better!" Atlanta and LA were rigorously bottom-lined and as bland as the cities themselves. However, on the other hand, two stand out for me, one of which is London, which apparently learned the lessons of recent Olympiads by promising to break down the majority of the venues and scatter them amongst various schools and public programs for event spaces at junior levels across the country. Basically, nothing will be without purpose beyond the games, a life-span ensured longer than a short fortnight of summer (though London did go well over budget).
The other is Barcelona, a city that at the time of the '92 games had recently awoken from a Franco-induced slumber and was eager to burst out in an explosion of color, life, and opportunity, befitting of all the natural and built resources of the city's setting. And along these lines (and again moreso than any singular athletic performance) a singular venue at each of these games embodied the spirit of the city that embraced them.
The diving venue on Montjuic in Barcelona:
And the Horse Guards Parade for beach volleyball in London, the Eye peering out over from the background:
Neither was about some architects arbitrary and abstract regurgitation of self (I'm looking at you Bird's Nest) or impressionistic futurism applied in a way to obstruct proper viewing and utility (Hadid's aquatic center in London with its sloped seating on only two sides allowing a predominance of poor, distant views, emphasizing the class divide between those who could afford good seats and everybody else...which itself is a very cynical modern expression of London. But, I'm bored by architectural cynicism and self-expression.), but rather they celebrate the entirety of the city: the buildings, the history, the people, and the implied future. A connection from past to present and beyond. A reminder of what is truly important and worth celebrating Olympic cities (which also happens to be the defining feature of Olympic cities - places even worth celebrating in the first place), and that is humanities single greatest technological achievement: cities themselves.