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How the Olympics changed the world

01 August 2016

As Rio welcomes the Olympic and Paralympic Games, international authors reflect on how cities around 
the world changed in their wake

London 2012 – Simon Garfield 
‘It could have gone either way. No Olympics build-up is free of doom, and the misgivings hung heavy in early 2012. Nothing would be finished in time. The capital’s roads would come to a standstill as athletes, freeloading officials and the world’s media organisations had their journeys fast-tracked on Olympic superhighways. Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre was just too weird-looking. Police would be overstretched. Those who didn’t like sport felt they were being taxed to benefit those who did. And, of course, it was costing too damn much.

‘I wrote one of those doom stories myself. A Hackney allotment was due to be uprooted – carrot by protesting carrot – to make way for a concrete riverside Olympic walkway. Was a 100-year-old community enterprise worth destroying for a few athletes to achieve their personal bests? Although some of the allotmenteers relocated, the area did lose something special. And then it gained something special, too.

‘In the summer of 2012, I was prouder of my home city than ever. We got it right. We got almost the whole thing right, in fact: the sport, the celebration, the legacy. London – already globally central for its finance, multi-ethnicity and culture – became suddenly central for mounting a huge extravaganza that was seen by billions. It was one of the best Olympics there has ever been – humanity at its best and most inspiring. Rio has the toughest act to follow. 

‘I saw some great events with my family such as the table tennis at ExCel in Docklands and the beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade. My biggest regret was not shelling out for opening ceremony tickets when I had the chance; they were even available on the morning, and still I thought they were too expensive – how good could it really be? It was searingly brilliant. Oh, and obviously I regret that our beach volleyball session was all men. 

‘OK, the typeface was terrible. I railed about the faux-Greek lettering that adorned the whole country, as if it had turned into a giant kebab shop. The font was jagged and unwieldy – seldom attributes one attaches to an occasion concerned with fleetness and elegance. I still don’t like it, though I’m forced to acknowledge its invincibility – just one letter takes you right back there. And, despite its awkwardness, it brings a smile to my face.

‘On the closing night I watched Blur in Hyde Park. Eighty thousand people jumping up and down is extraordinary in itself, and we waltzed away with the thought that London’s summer was only just beginning. All that doom vanished in a haze of sweat, lights and glory. London was aware of what it had just witnessed and how it was a privilege to have been just a small part of it. And it always would be.’

‘On the closing night I watched Blur in Hyde Park. Eighty thousand people jumping up and down is extraordinary in itself, and we waltzed away with the thought that London’s summer was only just beginning. All that doom vanished in a haze of sweat, lights and glory. London was aware of what it had just witnessed and how it was a privilege to have been just a small part of it. And it always would be.’ @simongarfield

Simon Garfield was born and lives in London. His latest book, Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time, will be published next month (£16.99, Canongate Books). 

Beijing 2008 – A Yi
‘On 5 August 2008, the US Olympic Track Cycling Team arrived for the Beijing Olympics. The Telegraph reported that four of the team were wearing “smog masks”. Bobby Lea, one of the cyclists, told Reuters, “We didn't realise the impact that wearing the masks would have. From our standpoint it was to take care of a perceived health risk. In reality it came across as offensive. We don't want to insult the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) or the Chinese public.”

‘Countries have distinct personalities. Some are filled with sympathy. Others are afraid of getting into trouble. Some are self-indulgent and love to show off. Others are good at controlling and prohibiting their interaction with the world. 

‘In 2008, China was desperately longing for glory and therefore turned out to be extremely self-conscious. It took several steps to show the world an “ideal China”. To control the traffic, car owners with licence plates ending in even numbers could only drive on even-numbered dates and vice versa. Nearly half of the public buses were taken off the road and office hours were staggered to ease rush-hour traffic. Construction and productions were limited, silencing large, polluting enterprises.

‘One day a group of construction workers came to my house to change the original wood windows to smarter-looking aluminium ones. It was the local government who ordered the work, aware of how my building faced the busy Dawang Road below. They left the ones at the back. 

‘There was a period of time that I, as a Chinese native, was sensitive, too. In the 1990s, there was a friendly football game between China and the USA. Although the USA lost, the organisation committee awarded a trophy to their team. When their captain raised both his arms to cheer, he held the trophy in between his legs, which I found rather upsetting. One of my teachers at the time tried to comfort me, “It’s a nation whose people sew their national flags on to their underwear – what can you expect?”  

‘After the 2008 Games, many things relating to honour and dignity started to dissolve. A couple of years ago, Beijing was suffering from severe smog. If Bobby Lea had arrived without a mask at the time, people would have accused him of not looking after his health. 

‘Similarly, when star athlete Liu Xiang entered the 110m hurdles competition that year, it changed things here. Xiang was a national hero after winning gold for China in 2004, and we all know that there are only two results of a competition: victory and defeat. In the 2008 stadium, the options for Xiang were unrivalled glory or the public’s bitter disappointment, even anger. 

‘Xiang was not in the best condition, but he managed to save face by pulling out of the race altogether with an Achilles tendon. In doing so he and his team somehow found a different path “winning” and “losing”, and managed to escape the disastrous criticism from the public. For us, it was the first time that we had seen that there was a third option.’ 

A Yi lives in Beijing. He is the author of two collections of short stories and has published fiction in Granta. In 2010 he was shortlisted for the People’s Literature Top 20 Literary Giants of the Future.

Athens 2004 – Ersi Sotiropoulos
’I vividly remember the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2004. We escaped from Athens that morning – chaotic under normal circumstances, the city could have easily burst in a volcanic eruption that evening. 

‘Hosting the Olympics in Greece seemed romantically insane, the country too small, the commitment too high. I understood the symbolism and emotional charge involved – the first Olympic Games of the modern era, named after the ancient games that took place in the Greek sanctuary of Olympia, were held here in 1896. Then, it was a young state coming out of 400 years of Ottoman occupation, and Spyridon Louis, a water carrier wearing a fustanella – the traditional costume – won the marathon race. 

‘The new Games were a national challenge after entering the Eurozone in 2001. The price would be exorbitant. But the enthusiasm was intoxicating, so very few complained. 

‘That morning, as we were leaving, the car packed with children and a dog, it was like driving through Switzerland, the roads almost empty, the traffic smooth, no beggars, no chaos. Workers were moving silently behind scaffolding. Cranes were receding in the bright sky. Volunteers in blue and white shirts had started gathering in the central spots.

‘Once in the country, watching the Games on an old TV, we saw the best of Greece: free of prejudice, bigotry and kitsch folklore. A long, sensitive, tracking shot of 4,000 years of history and civilisation succeeded in reviving images and myths without stereotype. It was the country we dreamed about, not the heavy, righteous Greece we were taught about when we were in school. 

‘Alas, the good times didn’t last; the countdown to the difficulties began when the Games finished. Thunderstruck, we read the news in depressing headlines, and we now know that our two great accomplishments, the Eurozone adventure and the Olympics, added more than €50bn to our national debt. Hit by the financial crisis, Greece was unable to invest in the upkeep of the once-gleaming venues. Most of them lie abandoned and crumbling, derelict buildings at the Helliniko Olympic Complex turning to rust, like the aftermath of a natural catastrophe. They are the new ruins of Athens, relics for a postmodern archaeology, where stray dogs wonder and kids occasionally go skating. 

‘But on sunny days with a sea breeze, this post-Games depression seems inappropriate, almost inelegant. What remains and what is important for us to remember in a world once more divided and insecure, is this message of humanity and brotherhood. We must not forget that, in ancient times, all the conflicts ceased and the Games were held in peace.’ 

Ersi Sotiropoulos has won Greece’s National Book Prize, Academy Prize and the National Book Critics’ Award. Her novel, What’s Left of the Night, is out in French (Stock) this year and English in 2017 (£12.30, New Vessel Press). 

Barcelona 1992 – Santiago Roncagliolo
If you want to live in Barcelona, there are two things you need to know. Firstly, this city has the spirit of a national capital. And secondly, half of the population is called Jordi.

‘The first, you probably already know – for many Catalans, Barcelona should be the capital of its own country. 

Ignoring politics, it is already the most important Spanish city for writers. Or for high-powered executives, who come for the Mobile World Congress. Or simply for tourists.

‘The second fact is less well-known, but more important for daily life. Jordi (George) is the patron saint of Catalonia. Jordi Pujol was the president who governed the region for 23 years, though he now faces charges of money laundering. Most of my friends are Jordis. Of just my writer friends alone, I know three. And all of those Jordis agree on one thing: the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games changed Catalan self-esteem forever.

“The Games gave birth to a new Barcelona,” says Jordi Corominas, a writer and performer. Before, it was easy to meet Mayor Pasqual Maragall in the streets. But suddenly, in 1992, the world became bigger. The Games were a state of mind. When they finished, our streets looked empty, like a hurricane had passed.

‘With a cigarette in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, Corominas tells me about the first rebirth of his city. In 1885, the walls around Barcelona were torn down. It began to grow, swallowing little villages and building industrial neighbourhoods. More than a century and a half later, the Olympic Games created another turning point, taking Barcelona from a grey place to one filled with splashes of modern design and modernist art, from a provincial city to an international reference on quality of life.

‘My next Jordi – Carrión – also puts the Games in a historical perspective: “Barcelona spent a whole century creating an international brand, beginning with International Expositions in 1888 and 1929. Franco’s regime stopped this process but the Games in 1992 brought it back. It was no accident that they used the original urban plans for the cancelled exposition, opening new neighbourhoods and rearranging the city towards the sea.”

‘My third and final Jordi – Joan Baños – is the New Delhi correspondent for the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia. The Indian capital is probably as different from Barcelona as possible. The first time Baños left Barcelona was during the Olympic Games: “I went to Morocco with my girlfriend, but I loved watching it all on TV in Fez. 

Announcements from the Games were spoken in four languages and, for the first time, one of them was Catalan!”

‘For Baños, the Barcelona Games were a question of historical justice. In 1936, under the Spanish Republic, Barcelona was supposed to host the “Popular Olympic Games”, an answer to the Berlin Games organised that year under the Nazi regime. Franco’s coup d’état – and subsequent Civil War – forced the cancellation of those games. Fifty-six years later, in a democratic Spain, the Olympics were finally held there, in a stadium which was later named Lluís Companys after the president of Catalonia who was executed by Franco right in that place.

‘Whether a matter of urban organisation, justice or international visibility, the Olympic Games gave Barcelona the feeling of once again playing in the Premier League of world cities. That is something no Jordi will forget.’

Santiago Roncagliolo is a writer and journalist from Lima and lives in Barcelona. He has written five novels, including Red April, which won the Alfaguara Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, as well as the collection of short stories: Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories. @twitroncagliolo

Tokyo 1964 and 2020 – Takashi Hiraide 
If you encounter the Olympics twice in your own country during your lifetime, you may regard it as extraordinary good fortune. Tokyo held the Olympics in 1964 and will do so again in 2020. That’s 56 years in between, so the first thing to do is thank your lucky stars for your longevity.

‘Before 1964, Japan was still recovering from the war. In those days, during my childhood, everybody was interested in sports and we would often have athletic meets between the nearby schools. People would get excited about neighbourhood relay races, which not only saw the children competing against each other, but entire communities contending for victory. It was a period when Japan felt like one large neighbourhood.

‘All across the country, hills and mountains were being levelled for development and children would play in the vacant lots where residential houses were waiting to be built. Come Sunday, these places became small festival grounds – not just for children – but also for the adults who joined them. On weekdays, the adults from the neighbourhoods were praiseworthy workers, focused on building the economy, but on Sunday they would take off their suits and compete alongside the local boys and girls. During the summer holidays, they competed in races in the brand-new swimming pool at the primary school, some of them just in loincloths – such was the level of scarcity at the time. My father was among them, but I wasn’t embarrassed about it. Soon after, the age of TV arrived and with it came the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. 

‘Will there still be “neighbourhoods” in the Olympic Games of the 21st century? No, there can’t be, the world has moved on since the 1950s and 1960s, but the purity of the competition still exists. 

‘This time the Games will be more precisely executed, with more funding, better management. But still, the Tokyo Games of the 21st century should be able to go forward and build on the memories of the neighbourhood festivals of 1964. I’m looking forward to seeing how the communities that have replaced Japan’s neighbourhoods will reveal themselves, showing a different place to the world. 

‘When I first encountered the Olympics, I was a child, and next time I’ll be an old man. I can’t say I’m not just a little bit sad that I couldn’t take part in them the first time and won’t be able to do so the second time, either.’ @fivienews 

Takashi Hiraide was born in Moji-ku, Kitakyushu, in 1950. He lives in the west suburbs of Tokyo. His books include one on poetry and baseball, and his novel, The Guest Cat, is a New York Times bestseller.