Over the past 20 years, the notion of the legacy of the Olympic Games has become increasingly important to any campaign to host them. As Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics and former chairman of the London 2012 organizing committee, said in 2006, legacy counts as nine-tenths of hosting the Olympics. And he was clear about what that meant: “It is the local people,” he told the House of Lords, “who must stand to get the most out of the Games.”
The Legacy Games, as London 2012 was dubbed, sought to project a new and positive future for the city at large, a vision that was duly satirised by the BBC mockumentary Twenty Twelve. Designing the Olympics in this way, as a long-term investment in a future destination, usually helps justify the cost of hosting them. The aim is to make the local population believe that sports will bring them a net return when compared to investing this money in other sectors such as health and education.
In some cases, the 2020 Olympic Games increased by 244%, costing Japan $15.4 billion. Japan’s National Audit Board nearly doubled that estimate in 2019, bringing total spending to close to $28 billion. As the curtains on Tokyo 2020 close, the big question for many, and especially for local Tokyoites, will be: was it worth it?
Shinzo Abe, who was the prime minister at the time Japan won the right to host the 2020 Games, categorically stated that Tokyo 2020 is an important way to see Japanese culture and people and open up to the world to come. And for the Games, the Tokyo Olympic Committees made international visitors to Japan a central tenet of their heritage pitches.
These committees argued that interactions between visitors and local communities – cultural producers, small businesses – are unique selling points for Tokyo as a tourist destination. It follows that potentially undermines this central rationale for holding existing residents and local businesses in the first place.
And yet, the same thing happened. Across Tokyo, new urban development projects have transformed the diverse and authentic Japanese backstreets. Research has shown that before Tokyo 2020, the capital’s older neighborhoods were feeling the pressure.
One journalist noted how “Mushi-Koyama’s Shinagawa neighborhood – a lively maze of small alleyways that once housed dozens of small eateries, tapas restaurants and bars – is now a virtual ghost town”. Increased policing and closed shops lined up one after another in Tokyo parks, falling victim to rising property prices and rents.
Local business complexes being subject to corporate colonization is a widespread concern that Olympic tourism scholars highlight around the world. Our research has pointed to host cities becoming clone towns and urban landscapes, with small businesses being replaced by global and national chains.
It signifies anything other than the diverse and unique cultural proposition promised in Olympic hosting campaigns. In the long run, this will not encourage and hinder competition in terms of tourism. And it is already isolating local communities.
A significant body of evidence has found that, prior to the Games, local communities in and around the Olympic venues are directly affected. The construction of the new National Stadium in Shinjuku ahead of Tokyo 2020 saw elderly tenants being evicted and displaced, and homeless people evicted in alarming numbers.
With each new successful Olympic bid, this pattern of displacement, disruption and civilization is constantly noted. In the five years before the Games, Barcelona saw property prices increase by 130%. Sydney also saw house prices rise 11% higher than the rest of Australia before the 2000 Summer Olympics.
Low-income residents may be replaced by upwardly mobile residents as new apartment blocks are built to house them. Rising commercial rents, meanwhile, cause small, low-profit margin businesses to fail, with bijou stores and coffee shop chains taking their place.
These effects are felt long after the games have ended. The post-event gentrification has become so frequent that pundits refer to it as the Olympic effect. However, the reality of people facing evictions and being driven out of local neighborhoods is often bleak, highlighting the apathy towards protecting local business communities and diverse urban high streets. Research has found that these communities are often embroiled in the struggle for survival and are barely recognized as a major contributor to both the local and national economies. Nevertheless, this is far from the truth.
Cities are complex creatures. The way they develop over time is the product of decades of social and economic policies. The Olympics, however, accelerate gentrification that would otherwise have come to fruition more slowly.
Often, this is the result of targeted regeneration plans, such as the construction of Meiji Park for Tokyo 2020, or, in Rio de Janeiro, the Porto Maravilha Cultural Quarter. Such event-driven tourism of urban spaces plays another role in catalyzing and accelerating gentrification.
Future Olympic host cities, including Paris (2024), Los Angeles (2028) and Brisbane (2032), should try to limit any negative local social impacts. The result of displacing local people and businesses may not be an immediate priority politically or economically. However, the unique local culture created by the vibrant local communities keeps visitors coming for a long time.