Urban Development Wolfgang Maennig: “Not an Olympic discipline”

2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro
2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro | Photo (detail): © f11photo/Fotolia

The Olympics have a positive impact first and foremost on sport, says economics professor and Olympic rowing medallist Wolfgang Maennig. In our interview, he explains why he is against the Olympic Games being used as an urban development instrument. 

Wirtschaftsprofessor und Ruder-Olympiasieger Wolfgang Maennig Wirtschaftsprofessor und Ruder-Olympiasieger Wolfgang Maennig | © Universität Hamburg
Professor Maennig, do mega events like the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro boost the economy of a city or region?

Statistical studies conclude that incomes, employment rates, tax revenues and tourism numbers do not increase as a result of this kind of mega event. There are just a few exceptions, such as the Football World Cup in South Africa in 2010, when the numbers of tourists rose to between 100,000 and 200,000 – probably because the World Cup was held during the low season. However, such events normally take place during the high season when the host country’s capacities are fully exhausted in any case.
 
How do you think tourist numbers will be affected in Rio?

On this statistical basis, we can assume that there will be no significant effects. Although it is the low season in Brazil in terms of tourism, the Olympics will be overshadowed by many problems, such as the economic situation in Brazil and current global tensions. Added to that are the discussions about the Zika virus, riots and criminality in Rio – all of which has a tendency to put off tourists. One thing is certain: even if there were to be the same sort of effect as in South Africa, it would be significantly smaller than the anticipated half a million or one million additional tourists.
 
Do mega events actually have any positive effects? In terms of infrastructure and the population, for example?

Of course there are positive effects. Let’s start with sport, which after all is what it is primarily about. In this sense there is empirical evidence of a pronounced home advantage, which is why we expect to see a significant rise in the number of Brazilian medallists in Rio. This in itself is extremely valuable for Brazilian sport. The question about infrastructure is actually misguided: it is not the job of the Olympic Games to promote urban development. Urban development is not an Olympic discipline.
 
What could turn out to be a positive effect, then?

The positive value of the Olympics are the Games themselves. Hosting them is the city’s reward, as it then rises into the select league of Olympic cities in the world. It enjoys the wonderful experience of having the best sport in the city – that is the reward. Questions such as “What will we get out of it?”, meaning something along the lines of “Will we earn money if we put on a great party for ourselves and for our guests?” are simply inappropriate.
 
So why is urban development always a focus nonetheless?

We are suffering from the Barcelona syndrome, where the city did succeed in driving forward urban development as a result of the 1992 Olympic Games. Having said that, this was against a unique historical backdrop, as Franco had neglected Catalonia. Spain needed to make it up to the region, as it were. The country joined the European Union in 1986, which allowed Spain to take advantage of EU funding. Ever since, decision-makers all over the world no longer apply to host the Olympics because they want to bring the world’s best athletes to their cities, but because they want to be in a position to extort billions in public funding from their national governments.
 
The local population in Rio is protesting against resettlement and rising prices. How can these problems be avoided in future?

We as the Olympic family must put a stop to the trend towards abusing the Games as a misguided urban development instrument. Of course we were happy for a while to see that billions were invested in urban development as a result of our celebration of sport. That appeared to improve our image. In the meantime, however, the billions spent on things that have nothing to do with the Olympic Games have come back to haunt us. The growing resistance to the Olympics among local residents is essentially rooted in the belief that the Games will cost billions. The rejection of Hamburg’s bid by the local population is no isolated case, but rather the rule. People also voted against the Games in Vienna, Krakow, Munich and St. Moritz/Graubünden – one main argument by the opposition always being the billions in costs.
 
What can be done to make the Olympics more attractive for cities again?

The alarm bells need to ring in the Olympic family. We have a duty to react and to say that we no longer want the Olympic Games to be used as a cover-up for regenerating a city that has been previously neglected in terms of urban development. We want a sporting event – nothing more, nothing less. We do not want any new motorways, airports or train stations to be built especially for the Games. Of course, this also means we need to lower our own standards somewhat and be prepared in some cases to accept smaller sporting venues and make do with the existing infrastructure. To make it quite clear: up till now, the Olympic Games have been seen as the best way to regenerate a city, and that has proved to be a failure. In future, the Olympics must be regarded as the crowning glory for a successful policy of urban development. The Games should only be hosted in cities that have already established sporting venues and infrastructure for their citizens that are so convincing that a mega event can be staged there without any significant investment.Wolfgang Maennig, born in 1960, is a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg. He won an Olympic medal in rowing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Maennig’s expert reports on the funding of major sporting events, which he had compiled among other things in the run-up to Germany’s applications to host the Olympics (Berlin 2000, Leipzig 2012), were highly regarded.

Wolfgang Maennig, born in 1960, is a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg. He won an Olympic medal in rowing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Maennig’s expert reports on the funding of major sporting events, which he had compiled among other things in the run-up to Germany’s applications to host the Olympics (Berlin 2000, Leipzig 2012), were highly regarded.