Olympic Games reloaded?

Photo: Architekten Von Gerkan, Marg Und Partner (gmp)

Photo: Architekten von Gerkan, Marg und Partner (gmp)


Does the Hamburg 2024 bid represent the future of the Olympic Games or are the underlying mechanisms still the same, giving old-fashioned bids a new legitimacy? Leading up to a local referendum in November Dennis Pauschinger comments on what he sees as the discrepancy between the words and the action in the Hamburg 2024 bid plans.

The deep sound of ship horns fills the air. Many cruise liners with guests from all over the globe join in the commotion. Masses of people on the docks are waving. The view switches and we see a stadium’s curved tribune with an excellent view of the new concert hall, Hamburg’s inner city skyline, and the HafenCity neighbourhood. In front of the new Olympic swimming pool, people enjoy Olympic public viewing – and wave. The picture shows citizens, global guests and athletes strolling around the Olympic park and the Olympic village.

These are the images shown in the city’s advertising pictures and planning figures in the Hamburg 2024 Olympic Summer Games bid. The planners have created an Olympic utopia. Rather unlikely in the age of Olympic securitisation post-9/11. However, Hamburg officials claim that the new Olympic Games will be sustainable, will produce a real legacy, will become the first climate-neutral event, and will have a Hanseatic humble touch – promises never achieved by any other host city.

The 2024 Summer Games Olympic bid is crucial for the IOC. The multibillion Euro organisation tries to rehabilitate its image and bring the Games back into Western hemispheres to materialise the IOC 2020 reform agenda mantra, away from gigantism towards more frugal games. A step in that direction was supposed to be the publication of the host city contract. Instead, it is not much more than a statement of principles as key aspects about financing mechanisms and the liabilities remain unchanged.  

So why would the city of Hamburg take the financial burden and political risk to bid for Olympic Summer Games? What is at stake in Hamburg? Has an Olympic virus suddenly infected the city or is its engagement part of a larger master plan? Does Hamburg offer a real sustainable and different project or is it merely new wine in old bottles? And if so, what could be a solution for the future of the Olympic Games?

Hamburg’s Olympic project
The planners want to transmit the impression, that with the IOC 2020 reform agenda, only small-sized cities can supersede the pageantry of former hosts. Their logic suggests that Hamburg is the perfect candidate. The idea is to have compact games with small distances between all the venues. In the city centre, the small river island Kleine Grasbrook, is projected to be home to the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic swimming pool, the Olympic Park, and the Olympic Village in 2024. The plan embodies the idea that almost all venues will be located in a distance of 10 kilometres from the stadium and be reachable in less than 30 minutes by bike.

The city also promises to transform the Olympic village into a legacy park featuring nearly 8.000 housing units, new jobs, and an Olympic park with a new cruise terminal. The stadium, the master plan says, will be reduced from 60.000 seats to 20.000 and even include 400 high-class apartments after the games.

Within the legacy mode, the city promises to improve sport facilities of the many sport associations and to build the first barrier-free neighbourhood ever for disabled people. Although studies by globally recognised scientists have shown that the Olympic Games can only benefit certain groups in a host city economically, officials do not hesitate to emphasise the millennium chance the Olympic Games may have for Hamburg. Thus, what is it that makes the city stand so much behind the bid?

The Olympics as an urban development catalyst
One of the answers may be the 2012 London Games, often used as a positive example for neighbourhood development by Hamburg’s city planners. However, the result in London is associated with a long process of evictions, gentrification and the policing of local youth groups to ban them from the Olympic venues.

Jörn Walter, Hamburg’s chief planner, has wanted to expand the city on the Kleine Grasbrook for quite some time. Plans to relocate the whole university to that piece of land were dismissed after strong resistance, but his vanquished idea resurfaced and the Olympic project takes up an old idea: the city planners’ decade-old promise to finally succeed the “leap” over the river to connect Hamburg’s outskirts with the city centre. 

In 2001, the government started to upgrade the port area and build a new neighbourhood now known as the HafenCity (Port City). On its tip sits the Elbphilharmonie, the concert house that will have devoured nearly a billion Euros of tax money when it is finally finished in 2017. The neighbourhood behind the concert hall features mostly high-class apartments, not affordable for the average citizen. Even with the HafenCity University in its middle, the neighbourhood is probably the least vibrant cultural area in Hamburg.

Just opposite of the newly inaugurated university, lays the future Olympic City that is currently still in use by an array of port industry businesses. Nearby Wilhelmsburg and Veddel both of which are among the poorest boroughs in the city. Therefore, Hamburg’s Olympic project is not as much about sports as it is about urban development and an attempt to use the Olympics as a catalyst for plans the city wants to realise anyway. 

A powerful alliance back up the bid
Does this still make Hamburg an alternative to former Olympic projects and a bet on the future of the Olympic Games?

A detailed look at who backs up the city’s plans may shed some light. The supportive alliance is built by a wide range of important businesspersons. On the forefront of the alliance, Hamburg’s powerful Chamber of Commerce that holds 1% of the Local Organising Committee. Alexander Otto, chairman and owner of the ECE investment group (shopping malls), raised millions of Euros to support the campaign. A team of marketing specialists from the city’s most professional marketing agencies are responsible for the claims that decorate the city (e.g. Hamburg 2024, this happens only once). Public transportation, public companies, banks and supermarket chains support the bid ambitions, using the fire and flame icons wherever possible.

The planning team is formed by globally well-known corporations such as KCAP; gmp international; Arup Group London; AS&P among others. Albert Speer, who is also responsible for the Qatar 2022 World Cup stadiums, runs the AS&P architecture office.

The involved companies reveal how much Hamburg veils its ambitions in a new discourse, but play the game with the old mechanisms known from former bidding projects.

Marketing instead of real participation and transparency
As said above, the planners furnish their ambitions with concepts such as `sustainability´, `legacy´, `climate-neutral´, `financially thoughtful´ and `transparency´.

Despite the recent publication of the Hamburg Olympic Master Plan, these concepts remain unattended and vague. Despite of the studies showing the limited effects of Olympic Games for the finances and tourism branches of a city, Hamburg’s officials continue to propagate the financial and reputation opportunities of the Games. However, they are aware of the difficult task to green wash the Olympics. Therefore, members of the marketing team on a sports marketing conference in June, clearly announced that the campaign must depoliticise the debate and target the emotions of the population.

As a result, the citizens find themselves confronted with a ubiquitous public-private alliance within which the boundaries of political and private interests have disappeared. The most influential local newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt and its chief editor sit at the same table as the city and the 2024 boosters. Recently, Hamburg’s Culture Senator Prof. Barbara Kisseler called for a “festival of ideas” with Hamburg’s culture establishment to work out how arts, theatre and music could accompany the bid and pacify the critics. Not all invited artists have agreed to participate and some have publicly declared that arts should not serve the purpose of the powerful but defy them.

In a series of workshops the city tried to assure transparency and participation possibilities and published the results in a glossy paper brochure. However, no citizen can reproduce what actually happened with his or her questions and suggestions. From the beginning, it was not a matter of whether the citizens want the games but rather how they want them.

At no point, the city really engaged with the high number of risks and dangers an Olympic bid may bring to the city.

Referendum on unequal premises
The next decisive moment will be the planned referendum on 29th of November when Hamburg citizens can decide whether they want their representatives to continue the bid or not.

A recently published master plan did not answer questions about the city’s financial burden. The plan was judged by Hamburg’s audit court as highly irresponsible. The bid alone is expected to swallow an amount of not less than 50 million Euros. Nonetheless, the city has declared several times that there will be neither any reliable and final cost calculation by the end of November nor will the city sign any cost limitation agreement.

The financial plan released on October 8th contains numbers that surely change until 2024, as many costs are absolutely underestimated (security with only 416 million Euros). The planners estimate 11.2 billion Euros with revenues of 3.8 billion for the Olympics. This means that the taxpayers still need to pay 7.4 billion, from which Hamburg would not take more than 1.2 billion.

The first statements from the federal government leave little space for optimism that it will finance the rest of the 6.2 billion. Negotiations between Hamburg and the federation will continue but not be finished until the referendum. Put differently, they want the people to hand out the permission to realise the games no matter the costs.

In contrast to the affluent pro-2024 coalition within which state and private employees work full-time on the campaign, the Hamburg NOlympia recruits its support almost solely from civil society and the movement has grown stronger during the last months. Open discussion platforms and a blog dismantle the pro-2024 information and marketing campaign.

Steadily, the circle of critical voices increases.

The Greens’ youth organisation has clearly rejected the mother party’s support for the bid. The University of Hamburg’s student parliament and the party left of the SPD, Die Linke, are among those who question the city’s application and want to oppose to the gentrification engine of the Olympic Games. The harbour industry is clearly not satisfied with the Olympic plans either and in the end they may be a loud voice to cross the government’s plans.

However, the NOlympia movement struggles with the overwhelming inequality in money and human resources, the omnipresence of the pro-Olympics marketing campaign and a debate that emphasises emotions more than facts.

Hamburg as an alternative? Or an alternative for Hamburg?
Hamburg likes to stage itself as the alternative for the future of the Olympic Games. More sustainable, more democratic, and more modest. However, the mechanisms in Hamburg are not different from any prior Olympic bidding city. There are no real citizen participation possibilities, and the project benefits only some instead of all citizens.

It could have been different if the city had opened the discussion about the risks, dangers, and about better alternatives right away. Instead, the campaign reaches rather controversial political levels. The mayor claimed that the European refugee situation and Olympic Games are two sides of the same coin. Both projects would need a vision, an outgrowing moment, and people that stand together, he said.

One of Hamburg’s arguments is strikingly smart: if we do not want to cede the Olympic Games to authoritarian states we must offer an alternative. Who could say no to such a claim? But the alternative turns out be old wine in new bottles. Unsurprisingly, the bid is clearly an urban development project in its purest form. It is not about sports. It is not about the Olympic dream. It is not about new forms of sports governance.

It is about giving old traditions a new name and new legitimacy. It is about letting the public paying for the mega event spectacle. While local neighbourhood swimming baths close, the city wants to build an Olympic swimming pool. The project is most clearly about the opportunity to get federal and international money to realise an urban development programme. In addition, there is the hope of politicians, local patriots and marketing strategists that the Olympics will confer prestige and cultural capital on Hamburg and that the city reaches the spheres of a global city.

Olympic Games reloaded?
What could be alternatives for the Olympic Games then if Hamburg despite its own promises is not showing a new path for the games?

A radical alternative is popping up – and probably much needed: Professor and mega-event critic Christopher Gaffney and others introduced the idea that the bidding process should be stopped in all cities (#No2024.). This would be an opportunity for the international sports community to take a stand and to think through the hyper-commercialisation of sports, its corrupt mechanisms, “its extractive and parasitic business model, and the perverse distribution of public benefits for the same range of companies and organisations”.

And it seems to be a good idea that there should be one venue in one city, paid for by the IOC and its marketing partners alone, in which the Olympic Games would take place every four years. That would be more sustainable and friendlier for the citizens. If sports stick to the old rules of the game, it is likely that we will have more of the unworthy scenes recently witnessed in the FIFA scandals.

And more: we need an open discussion if an Olympic model that focus on faster, higher, stronger is a model that should be continued in times within which sport is often only a vehicle for interests that leak into politics, urban development, and economics.  

The horns of the ships in the harbour should be a daily warning and help to disperse the Olympic shadows that threaten the city or at least: open ways in the fog for a more honest accounting of the financial risks, the threat of securitisation, and the transformation of public into private spaces that still come in tandem with the Olympic Games.


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