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Protesters gather to demonstrate outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 23, 2021.

Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press

Even before the pandemic postponed the Tokyo Olympics last year, the Japanese government had a problem on its hands. Hosting the Games comes with big risks, big promises and, as history has repeatedly shown, a hefty price tag.

Olympic hosts are inevitably left to debate whether it was all worth it. Tokyo is far from alone. Any city that invites one of the world’s biggest sporting spectacles into its backyard is usually challenged to justify the cost to an increasingly wary public.

But as the Olympic train rolls on – with the International Olympic Committee awarding the 2032 Summer Games to Brisbane this week – a Canadian gold medalist who has since traded speed skating for urban planning and Olympic-bid consulting, believes the future of the Games will be about cities putting their priorities first.

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Christine Nesbitt, who was victorious at the 2010 Vancouver Games and has since become a consultant to cities on how to build better, more sustainable Games, says host cities must get smarter about how they plan. This includes better long-term thinking about legacy projects, from social housing to public transportation, and ensuring those ideas will be executed properly.

Canadian Olympic team’s top doctor says athletes should feel protected in village

“The reason the Games are so controversial is they often push cities up to and beyond their capacity, and the risks are outweighing the benefits,” said Nesbitt, who co-founded Collab Legacy Projects with business partner David Cooper, an urban planner who has worked on major projects in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and has seen the weaknesses of poor Olympic planning up close.

Together, they want to reshape how Olympic bids are made and how host cities operate. “There’s so many opinions about the Olympics. These criticisms are real, and they’re legitimate. So let’s see what we can do about it,” Nesbitt said.

Although host cities typically enter the bidding process with high-minded goals of building lasting infrastructure to benefit their communities, the best intentions are often eroded by time constraints imposed by the IOC, they say, which can also drive up costs.

Nesbitt and Cooper see this as a planning problem. They want host cities to assert themselves more in the process, determining first what long-term benefits the country or city needs to get for holding the Olympics, how long the infrastructure will take to build, and then ensuring the IOC can give the city the flexibility to make it happen.

Cooper says Calgary and Vancouver both made mistakes planning for the 1988 and 2010 Olympics, and these errors were the result of the limited timeline the IOC gives cities to prepare.

While the 1988 and 2010 Games delivered on some legacy promises – such as the conversion of the Richmond speed-skating oval to a large public fitness facility, or the building of Calgary’s Saddledome – both cities rushed the construction of their transportation networks, which were intended to be long-term public projects for their communities.

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In the case of Calgary’s light-rail transit system, the project was hurried to meet an Olympic timeline, and the city has struggled since to expand the network properly, because of decisions that were made when it was constructed. The same happened with Vancouver’s Canada Line, which was repeatedly altered before 2010 to meet changing budgets and timelines and is now clouded by concerns that it will reach capacity decades before that was supposed to happen.

Cities need to push back on this, Cooper and Nesbitt say, to ensure they can plan the Olympic legacy they want, not the one that timelines dictate. “There’s a bit of a mismatch when it comes to the timelines of the Olympics and the capacity of government to respond to it,” said Cooper, who has worked as a planner for both the city of Calgary and Vancouver.

Hosting doesn’t have to be perilous for cities, they say. Historically, the process has been an effective way for governments to jumpstart public projects. But Cooper and Nesbitt say it’s time for cities to find ways to get more out of the process.

Under pressure, the IOC has started to depart from its norms, such as the seven-year period to plan an Olympics. The 2028 Los Angeles Games and the 2031 Brisbane Olympics were both given longer lead times, which is a positive development, but one brought about by increasing reluctance by potential bidders.

“If these cities weren’t walking away or there was high-profile public support, the IOC wouldn’t change these processes, they wouldn’t change the timeline,” Cooper said. “Right now the IOC needs cities with credible bids, with capacity to do this, to put their names forward, and if they don’t have that, they’re going to get themselves into bigger trouble with keeping the movement alive. So now is the time to push.”

The idea for their company arose after Cooper found he was being brought into planning conversations the Canadian government was involved in, as well as talks other countries were having about holding the Olympics. Cooper brought in Nesbitt, a friend since their university days, because her experience at three Olympics gave her unique insight. They have since talked informally with the planners of the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games, offering advice to local organizers, but Cooper said it made sense to form a consultancy, because there was clearly demand.

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Nesbitt also sits on the board of the Richmond oval, which is considered a success from the 2010 Games. However, Nesbitt points out the Vancouver Olympics promised much larger social benefits that were never delivered, including the conversion of the athletes village into social housing. Financial challenges and problems with the developer resulted in most of those units being sold as condos.

“By the end, there were 1,100 Olympic village units, and only 126 of them became social housing,” Nesbitt said. “It just went into private hands ... it was a real blow to a lot of people, and to the trust in the local government to follow through on promises.”

It’s a particularly relevant debate as Vancouver contemplates whether to launch a bid for the 2030 Winter Games. Nesbitt hopes to reconfigure Olympic planning so that legacy projects become a focal point of the process, not just an ancillary benefit.

“The Olympics and Paralympics are messy things to plan for. But I want to be optimistic about the ability that communities have to change that narrative and make it work for communities and host regions,” Nesbitt said. “The Olympics are really challenging, but I think there’s a great opportunity to challenge the IOC, and for communities to use the Olympics to get what they need, and what they aspire to 20, 30 or 40 years down the road.”

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