University of Calgary

Urban consequences for Olympic host cities

UToday HomeJuly 19, 2012

Harry H. HillerSociology professor Harry Hiller’s new book looks at the impact Olympic events have on the host cities, and the people who populate them. Photo by Riley BrandtAs the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London is fast approaching, a new book by University of Calgary sociology professor Harry H. Hiller looks at the impact Olympic events have on the host cities and the people who reside in them.

“The urban consequences of hosting the Olympics is significant,” says Hiller, who has authored Host Cities and the Olympics: An interactionist approach. “It’s not just an issue of medal winners.”

Drawing on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games as a case study, Hiller, an urban sociologist, develops a new theoretical approach for understanding the Games and uncovers the effects such events can have on a city.

“In Vancouver, there was strong opposition,” Hiller says. “It had to do with the financial priorities of the Olympics. People said ‘We should be helping the poor and providing housing for people.’”

There were also protests from a radical left, who saw the Olympics as an arm of international corporate capital, with sponsors like Coca Cola, Visa and others using the event to promote their products.

Determined to put on their best face for the world, Olympic cities invariably seek to clean up their troubled areas, says Hiller.

Vancouver had urban problems on Hastings Street, and in London the city has sought to redevelop the rough East End with its derelict buildings.

But such changes are not without consequence. “If you get rid of the inferior housing, what you do is gentrify,” says Hiller. “But then you’ve displaced people . . . . So much of this is debatable, whether hosting the Olympics is a good thing or not.”

As part of his research for Host Cities and the Olympics, Hiller surveyed the public mood every three days during the 2010 Vancouver Games. He notes that despite the initial opposition in the city, the feelings of residents were “quite remarkably transformed from negative to positive.”

Hiller’s Olympic research goes back to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary when he witnessed how Calgarians, in their excitement, turned the affair “from an elitist event into an urban festival.”

Calgary’s Olympic moment helped transform the city in the eyes of the world, Hiller says.

“We moved out of our role as this regional hinterland city,” he says. “The Olympics said: ‘We are now a city where something of global significance happened.’ The event played a role in introducing Calgary to the world in a new kind of way.”

Since publishing his papers on the Calgary Olympic Games, Hiller has made presentations around the world on the impact the Olympics makes on its host cities.