With the London Summer Olympic Games starting this week, the critiques have been loud. Unfortunately both the Summer and Winter Games have been tarnished with the same brush.
The Winter Games, I would argue, can provide net benefits to a city and region if managed correctly. Here are three reasons to think differently about these games versus those of summer.
First, the Winter Games have fewer events and require fewer venues.
Second, the Winter Games often take place in the mountains, on snow and at venues that already exist in some form. Yes, some summer tree clearing might happen to make a ski run wider, or some grooming to make it steeper, and you might need a bigger lodge–but the ski hills already exist in most host cities. Ice rinks too, tend to exist, and additional ones that need to be built are more easily transformed into other recreational facilities should additional ice rinks not be required.
The Summer Games require a lot of custom facilities. Most cities don’t have an artificial whitewater kayak facility (nor want one), for example, nor do they have cycle dromes, enough swimming pools with spectator space, etc. Beijing is finding that many of these custom venues today sit empty.
Third, hosting the Winter Olympics can provide an equal opportunity to lobby for outside funds to help construct infrastructure that improves the city. The Canada Line connecting the Vancouver Airport to Downtown in 20 minutes has made a dramatic difference to congestion and commute times, plus makes business and tourist travel more efficient. Without billions from the federal government (only promised to land and host the Olympics), this would not have been built–or at least not for 2010. The improved highway to Whistler was another achievement of Games planning.
And then there are the small things that make communities nicer places after the Games. New and refurbished ice rinks, expanded recreational opportunities, and better transit (new buses, more metro cars, etc.) benefit everyone.
And all this doesn’t include the city-spirit building that can happen, as Brent Toderian and others have discussed.
The Summer Games have a price tag that may be too high for the benefits received. But the Winter Games may not. Vancouver’s organizing committee officially broke even, however hundreds of thousands were given to a legacy fund (sounds like profit to me, reinvested wisely in sport and arts).*
It would be useful if a neutral party did some accounting and fact finding on the two types of Olympic Games. Maybe there are some lessons for the Summer Games that can be learned. Do they need to be so big? Could two or three cities share in the hosting, specializing in different types of events?