The Olympics stand as the ultimate showcase of the world’s greatest athletes. Through a display of the amazing feats of strength, skill, and endurance the human body is capable of, they have the remarkable ability to inspire future generations of champions from all corners of the globe.
Host cities often attempt to capitalize on the momentous occasion by building a new legacy for their citizens intended to persist long after the Olympic flame has been snuffed. The prospect of developing this legacy has provided the unique opportunity for progress on many fronts—among them, public health.
Over the years, several measures have been taken by Olympic host cities to promote health and physical activity through campaigns established before and lasting throughout the Games.
As hosts of the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona launched the Smoke-Free Olympics Project that provided a non-smoking environment to protect athletes from passive smoke exposure and to strengthen the concept of health within the Olympic movement.
Leading up to 2008, the Chinese government aggressively intensified their clean-up efforts to reduce the smog and chronic air pollution that blanketed host city Beijing.
Perhaps one of the more innovative health promotion campaigns was seen in the months leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. And no, we’re not referring to the mass extermination the city carried out to stifle the public health threat of disease transmission and bites from stray dogs.
The Russian government installed machines in Moscow metro stations allowing riders to forego the price of a ticket in exchange for completing 30 squats in two minutes.
While perceived as gimmicky by health practitioners and laypersons alike, the campaign was exceptionally well received by Muscovites as a venture to raise awareness about the ability to engage in physical activity in small ways.
But, it’s not always good news.
Despite cities’ efforts to build on the Olympics to promote the health and wellbeing of their citizens, one symbol has challenged this notion, and has become synonymous with the Olympic Games for over 80 years: Coca-Cola.
What began as a small kiosk at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics grew into the Coca-Cola Olympic City in 1996, in the company’s hometown of Atlanta, promising a place for people to refresh and relax. In addition, Coca-Cola has been the longstanding sponsor of the Olympic torch relay that precedes the opening of every Olympic Games.
What becomes of these health promotion campaigns after the medal count has been settled and athletes return to their native lands?
The Smoke-Free Olympics Project received wide press coverage and international attention, yet evaluations in the years following provided inconclusive evidence as to whether the initiative yielded any meaningful benefits for the city of Barcelona, even in the short-term.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association investigating the association of Beijing’s pollution control with cardiovascular health painted a similarly bleak picture. Citizens of Beijing experienced a temporary improvement in heart health at the height of the 2008 Olympics only to see their conditions worsen again when all was said and done.
In the aftermath of the Olympics, the pressure of delivering on the big stage often overshadows the need to develop effective methods for leveraging infrastructure developments with the host city’s present economy and vision of its future beyond the main event.
While some cities such as Vancouver and London have benefited from the creation and regeneration of sports complexes, greater access to facilities, and general improvements to the physical activity environment, the site of the first Ancient Olympic Games hasn’t fared as well since its second round hosting the summer Games a decade ago.
Since 2004, many of the 24 sports complexes built in the Greek capital, including the main Olympic stadium, have become rundown and abandoned as maintenance and operation costs have become greater than consistently decreasing revenues from user fees.
Let’s face it. At the end of the day Greeks were never huge on America’s favorite pastime, but were required to construct a brand new baseball stadium for a sport which was voted out of the Olympics in 2005.
Moreover, economists attribute Athens’ grandiose $11 billion dollar spending as Olympic hosts to influencing the crippling financial crisis and eventual bailout that rendered Greece dilapidated, at best.
Host cities have been said to experience the so-called festival effect that comes naturally from providing a venue for the largest sporting competition in the world. The extent to which their envisioned legacies of a prosperous future is sustained, however, is often short-lived.
The 2014 Winter Games are the most expensive of all time, costing some $51 billion—more than all other Winter Olympics combined. This is largely due to the reality that sports were hardly part of the culture in the Russian resort city beforehand, and most everything, aside from the mountains themselves, had to be constructed from scratch. After all, Sochi is primarily a summer resort city.
As many nations vie to host the prestigious Olympic Games because of the perceived economic and geopolitical benefits, sound justification for the multibillion-dollar tab is left fleeting.
In the case of Sochi, time will tell how successful Russia has been in inspiring its citizens and fostering a culture of health and physical activity that can be maintained.
Imagine the possibilities if a portion of Russia’s original $12 billion budget, which quickly ballooned more than four-fold to a whopping $51 billion, had been allocated towards salient progress in other sectors, including public health.
For a country boasting a life expectancy a decade below that of many economically equivalent nations, and for which a 20-year old male has a measly 50 percent chance of surviving to age 60, greater investments in health promotion at the population level ought to be a priority.
With the lack of translational infrastructure emerging after the February 23 conclusion of the Games, we probably won’t catch many Russians trading squats for rubles come March.
Edited by Dana March