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The Olympic Dichotomy

The Olympics have long been a beacon for cultural and technological advancement.  From their debut in Athens in 1896 to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics where the first color television broadcast happened, the Olympics have an impact on the legacy of their host cities. While initially the International Olympic Committee (IOC) courted cities, later the cities began to court the commission in order to host the games in a complex bidding process. Cities essentially vye for the right to show off their nation’s prowess on a global stage, it’s a once in a lifetime shot at writing a powerful chapter in their history books. Making history however, doesn’t always pay the bills.

The 1964 Tokyo games were the first held in Asia and in that same vein the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are poised to debut a slew of new technology from 5G to Smartsuits. Infrastructurally speaking the close to 200 mph light rail is the highlight for the Korean games. Since the games themselves aren’t in the capital, the country has invested heavily in a system to swiftly move around the deluge of visitors between multiple venue sites and also in and out of the country for foreigners. The 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France had a similar infrastructure boost that had no long term benefit for the area and left the country millions in debt.

Again, broadcast history will be made at the Olympics as Intel will be broadcasting more than 50 hours of VR content from the Pyeongchang games. The VR broadcasts themselves will be made possible by a 5G network, also custom built just for the games. But folks, the fun doesn’t stop there, in the ice skating arena “bullet-time” video tech will be introduced. This essentially means you can pause, zoom, rewind and interact with live television like never before.

Great, but will these snazzy tech tools smooth relations between North and South Korea?  Will 5G internet stop a war? Does bullet-time video help restore water to the people of Cape Town? Obviously, the Olympics are not meant to solve the world’s problems but they aren’t supposed to leave cities worse off than before they hosted the games. Lake Placid, for instance had to be bailed out by the taxpayers of New York state as a reward for meeting all of the extraneous demands of the IOC. In others, like Sochi, the city is burdened with an $8.5B light rail system that is underutilized and a financial burden on the country and city to maintain.

The IOC are not urban planners, they’re event planners. Yet, they’ve been changing the course of urbanization around the globe for over a century. The simple truth of the matter is that the party always ends. When an event planner is hired for a wedding they’re responsible for every last detail from the first person arriving until the last chairs and silverware are packed and the venue is returned to its original state as if no one were ever there. They leave no trace. Yet the IOC runs around planning “parties” and creates disorganization that they leave for their host countries to clean up for decades, like the people of Montreal who ended up losing $3B to meet the demands of the IOC placed on them in 1976.

All that being said, a city like LA stands to benefit from the 2028 games like they did during the 1932 and 1984 Olympic games where Los Angeles expanded the Coliseum. The city is actually busy enough to maintain and utilize the surplus infrastructure. With tons of existing infrastructure for the competitions, the real investment is in the public transportation which LA is sorely in need of.  LA has actually had a surplus in cash from the last time it hosted the games, a stark contrast with many other host cities. The demands for the contest are simply accelerating existing plans.

This Friday, the Winter Olympics begin and the world will be watching and waiting. History will be made, medals will be won and no doubt there will be a lot of energy and excitement around the city of Pyeongchang. The jury is still out on whether it is the IOC itself or the host nations who are dropping the ball when it comes to the aftermath but one things is for certain: more often than not, the host nation’s bank account is not taking home the gold.

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