Going into my third semester as a VCL fellow, I was very interested by the prospect of event cities. Growing up, some of my earliest television memories were of the Beijing 2008 Olympics—as a Sinophile, I was astounded to see China’s exposition onto the world stage through mass art projects, buildings like the Beijing Water Cube and national stadium. Visiting Beijing as a high school junior in 2016, I was equally impressed by the sheer sense of scale and power large events such as the Olympics can convey, alongside the culture and history of a city. I was also fascinated by the way nationalism intersected with building, a means of demonstrating a nation’s prowess through architecture and spectacle. China’s Olympics were a way of reintroducing the country to the world, especially as a place that was viewed as “closed off” and “backwards”, and how the country was able to skillfully manipulate public perceptions of itself through events.
In the fictitious sense, event cities are prominent in young adult fiction. From my childhood obsession of the hunger games, set in a futuristic society that draws upon the gladiator traditions of the Romans in a form of public spectacle. Panem et circenses “bread and circuses” was the way the fictional government of the Hunger Games kept the wealthy masses at bay. By providing food and entertainment, the government was able to strip citizens of their political rights in return for being satiated. This manifested in the architecture of the Capitol, a city whose design in the movies was inspired by the totalitarian edifices of Brutalist Europe and China. The city was designed around the spectacle of the hunger games, with wide open avenues to parade the “tributes” (contestants) complete with pedestrian stands and large public plazas to watch the Games, which are televised live. The architecture likewise conveys a sense of power and triumph through design—and complements the games as a tool to cultivate servant nationalism.
This semester, I was assigned to Athens. This was a unique opportunity to juxtapose the Ancient Greek home of the Olympics with the modern era’s 2004 games held in the city. In a similar vein as Beijing 2008, the Athens Games were designed with nationalism and ideals of cultural superiority that would evoke strong emotions among Athenians and Greeks alike. I was not surprised to see that the games went over budget in the billions of dollars, constructing stadiums that would later be abandoned amidst the Greek debt crisis. It’s ironic that the games, indented the symbolize the rejuvenation of the country, incidentally helped bring it to financial ruin. This helped me draw parallels to the Rio 2016 games and World Cup, where billions of dollars poured in to clear favelas (slums) and build stadiums that would be left to rot once international spectators went home. The economic impacts of such games are questionable, as they require substantial investment for seemingly little return. Maybe the value of international attention and good press is worth the high barrier to entry, but to me the Olympics and other spectacles seem to be unjustifiable from a cost standpoint. I enjoyed working with the team and Professor Dillon to map out the physical impact of the 2004 games on Athens. It was interesting to examine the human cost of the Olympics, and I am excited to see where next semester’s research brings us.