After the Olympics Left
As London adjusts after the close of the 2012 Olympics writers including A Yi, Santiago Roncagilolo and Masha Gessen, reflect on how their cities have changed – for better and for worse – since hosting the Games.
I rented a house in an old block of flats, and you could see Dawang Road from the window. Any minute of any hour, any time whether it was night or day, there were cars racing to and fro on the road. The cars appeared in my dreams like two columns of bullets shooting at each other. I slept very badly. One day, I opened my door to a bunch of guys who wanted to come in. A short while later they had taken down all the old windows in the house and replaced them with brand-new ones made from an aluminum alloy. I didn’t have to pay for the work and neither did my landlord; even today I’m not aware of who did. By the time the Beijing Olympics came, if the people in those cars on Dawang Road happened to look up, they wouldn’t have seen any old buildings. Ever since we hosted the Olympics, the sky has often turned very blue and even today it’s still very blue, whereas before the Olympics, leaving the house was sometimes akin to taking a swim in a melancholy ocean of grey.
Translated by Alice Xin Liu.
Note: Dawang Road is a centrally located and commercial area in Beijing.
Tourists traipse round the two most spectacular venues, the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, expensive white elephants in a city rich in grand monuments but low in sporting passion; the great capital is running out of water and the kayaking centre has run dry; the baseball field has turned to sand; the Olympic construction boss is serving time for taking bribes.
How will it seem, looking back from the future? Was it the launch pad for China to go global, or the moment of maximum hubris, when ambition bogged down in complications? The economy no longer surges as it did, the air is foul again; the new subways work, but up above, the city is scarred by the grand avenue planned by Albert Speer Jr. Leni Riefenstal would have loved the opening ceremony, but today the cooler Chinese commentators praise Danny Boyle, longing for jokes and humanity, not state-centric spectacle.
Though the Western media doubted whether Athens could get its act together when the city was awarded the 2004 Olympics, it did, and Athens became its most magnificent around those games. Yes, the Olympics were a financial strain, but their cost, much of which went to implement extreme post-9/11 security measures, remains a small part of Greece’s overall debt today. Many of the Olympic sites are still in use and not abandoned or decaying, despite the West’s preoccupation with Athens’s so-called ruin. For the games Athens created a new airport, a gorgeous subway and tram system, and a national highway, all which function still. Athens is a certainly a city of ancient ruins, and because of this we often conflate the ancient with the modern. But ruins of an ancient civilization are not the same as the wreckage of an economically devastated city. Viewing it through this lens takes pleasure in its devastation, stunts progress and change, and completely disregards the living, working humanity of the city. Athens has seen better days, but it is still kicking and alive.
I happen to live in the Olympic neighbourhood, built twenty years ago for the games. Until then, this place was an industrial area. Now it looks like a science fiction fantasy from the sixties with a view to the sea. But right by its side, the old neighbourhood still survives: vacant lots of ancient usines, old chimneys, the women’s jailhouse. This is the point where past meets present, and you wonder which is the real one. I still have no answer.
The 1988 Olympics was a huge coming out party for South Korea. It marked the second time an Asian country had ever hosted the international games, and for South Korea, it monumentalized a transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, as well as the modernization of Korea. Korea has been on a meteoric rise since. It has since become one of the most competitive global economies in the world, gives humanitarian aid when it once received aid, and even boasts proper pizzas and other foreign fare that was spectacularly debauched in 1988. The Jamsil Olympic Stadium is now used for sports competitions, rock concerts, and as a general recreational area for Seoulites. What’s next for South Korea? Hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Moscow Olympic Games 1980 were an agglomeration of absences. The Western powers boycotted the games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Potential local protesters were removed from the city, as were prostitutes and anyone else deemed likely to disturb the view or spoil the peace. I was 13 and absent from the city, also exiled, along with my mother and little brother, to vacation a couple of hours away, in the small town where my grandmother lived. My father came to visit from the capital a couple of times, bearing delicacies such as sliced ham in glamorous vacuum-sealed packaging. With most of the potential competitors absent, the games themselves were a series of omissions and elisions: we made a good-faith effort to watch them on television, but the only memorable moment came during the closing ceremonies, when the bear that served as the games’ mascot flew away, carried by hundreds of balloons. Whatever had been built specially for the games was grey, concrete, and mammoth – typical Moscow, in other words, and easily absorbed by the city. Once I came home at the end of August, it was as if nothing had ever happened. Indeed, nothing had.
Mexico City, 1968
‘1968’ is a loaded four-digit word in Mexico. It can symbolize the visually pleasing success that Mexico had in hosting the first Olympics in a developing country and first in Latin America. ‘1968’ can also conjure the government’s repression against a political reform movement at Tlatelolco square on 2 October, ten days before the games opened. For others, though, ‘1968’ is a sad marker in a sad history, best represented by the surviving ‘Route of Friendship’ sculptures that Mexico’s organizers placed along a road that was called Periphery then but now sits well inside the urban swamp of Mexico City. The sculptures are forgotten, vandalized, or drawfed by development. They belong in a museum, but they’re already in one: Periférico’s traffic.
Tokyo, 1964 (and 2020?)
Last summer, Tokyo lost its lights. This summer, they’re back, as bright as ever. And in every fluoro-lit subway station – running again on a minute-by-minute schedule – hang posters advertising the city’s Olympic bid.
‘Ima, Nippon ni wa kono yume no chikara ga hitsuyoda (Japan needs the power of this dream now)’ asserts the official slogan for the games they’ve dubbed the Japan Revival Olympics.
But whose dreams? Whose needs? Whose power?
Whatever the legacy of the 1964 games, whatever the benefits of bringing them back in 2020, they seem to have little to do with restoring the dreams and lives shattered last spring.
But the brightness, it’s blinding. ■
Photo by jjjj56cp.