‘Let Space Speak’ | Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony

This Olympic Opening Ceremony offers poignant images of what is ‘not’ there

One of the things that struck me the most during Japan’s 2016 Forum of Sport & Culture was a talk by a Japanese living national treasure on the importance of empty space – and nothingness – in Japanese culture.

The opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 has had to be reconceived beyond anyone’s imagination, with organisers working on myriad alternative narrative threads from the outset. By the 23rd August 2021, we ended up with a ceremony memorable for its restraint and careful waiving of difficult subjects from the go.

It was good to see the inclusion of some humour – a few vignettes, such as the lighting of Tokyo’s iconic sights or the clever representation of all pictograms – were reminiscent of London 2012, the first ceremony to openly include unabashed humour, with the figure of Mr Bean bored while playing Chariots of Fire or the Queen jumping-off a plane – but the most striking visuals involved outstanding markers of emptiness and void.

Markers of empty space were the row after row of unpeopled seats in the 68,000-capacity stadium, a prominent background to flag raising and formal speeches; other such markers included the generous ‘social distancing’ space between performers, particularly during the scenes representing the isolation of athletes in training throughout 2020.

“markers of empty space were … rows of unpeopled seats…
or the generous social distancing space between performers…

These are all iconic images that will survive the test of time and, like the sight of athletes and dignataries wearing masks, they will take a prominent place in future symbolic representations of the Tokyo Games.

Japanese commentators have referred to Japanese culture’s capacity to ‘let space speak’. Space – empty space – certainly spoke during the opening of the postponed Tokyo Games and this added credibility and reflective beauty to the experience of what may have been one of the most expensive ceremonies ever while also, by far, the most understated and sober opening of a Games in living memory.

London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Evaluation

Photo: Beatriz Garcia during Piccadilly Circus Circus, part of the London 2012 Festival

In November 2011, the major stakeholders in the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival commissioned Dr Beatriz Garcia and her team at the  Institute of Cultural Capital (ICC) to produce an assessment of the multiple impacts of hosting the Cultural Olympiad. The final report was published in April 2013.

Download the Full Report or ExecutiveSummary.

The ICC received a broad brief to assess a complex and multi-layered object of study, which has changed considerably from its inception as the London 2012 culture chapter within the Candidature File in 2004, to its formal launch in 2008 and its culmination with the London 2012 Festival in 2012. This research and resulting report documents this journey and offers an objective assessment of the value, immediate impacts and legacy opportunities brought by the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. It assesses its aims and objectives, how these have been achieved and the resulting impact across five main areas:

  • Raising the bar for cultural programming
  • Engaging audiences and communities
  • Developing tourism
  • Governance and partnership approach
  • Placing culture at the heart of the Games

Structure of the report

The report is structured in 6 chapters and a Conclusion

  • Chapter 1: Introduction, includes an overview of the key Cultural Olympiad milestones, strands of programming and statistical indicators, the report is organised into five main thematic chapters:
  • Chapter 2: Raising the bar for cultural programmingoffers a closer look at each programming strand, assesses in detail the unprecedented scope of the programme and considers evidence of achievement to meet core values such as inspiring young people and showcasing Deaf and disabled artists.
  • Chapter 3: Engaging audiences and communities assesses the programme’s considerable outreach, looking at the volume, diversity, depth and likely sustainability of public engagement across audiences, visitors, participants and volunteers.
  • Chapter 4: Developing tourism focuses on the available evidence about immediate domestic and international tourism impacts and the opportunities brought by the Cultural Olympiad to grow culture-related tourism.
  • Chapter 5: Governance and partnership approaches discusses the programme’s complex operational framework, its sophisticated approach to secure funding and stakeholder support across the UK and the impacts of such an approach on multi-sector and sustainable partnership development.
  • Chapter 6: Culture at the heart of the Games discusses the programme’s capacity to remain central to the Games experience, from the strategies put in place to meet this objective, to its impact on opinion formers, publics and cultural stakeholders.

The Conclusion offers a brief reflection on key lessons and opportunities for legacy, particularly for future Games hosts and the hosts of one-off large cultural events, for which the knowledge base had so far been sparse.

This report is complemented by two Appendices offering supporting technical information as well as five dedicated Case Study reports, and a joint summary report offering Reflections_on_the_Cultural_Olympiad_and_London_2012_Festival by its director, Ruth Mackenzie.

Olympic Cities of Culture

The CC:RO has documented the evolution of the official Olympic Games cultural programme since it was launched in 1912, and Olympic Movement cultural policy frameworks since their first establishment in 1906. Fieldwork has been conducted in situ at Olympic Games editions since 1992. This work has taken place in collaboration with the Olympic Studies Centre (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona) and the Centre for Olympic Studies (University of New South Wales). The work has been possible thanks to the support of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research (University of Glasgow), the University of Liverpool and the Institute of Cultural Capital; and thanks to residencies at University of Technology, Sydney; the International Olympic Academy at Ancient Olympia, and the Olympic Studies Centre at the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne. The research has been funded by the British Academy, the Newton Fund, the Universities China Committee, Arts Council England, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee.

Find below an overview of the main Olympic Cities of Culture projects stored within the Observatory.
A broader range of stories is published via the specialist magazine Culture @ the Olympics

Comparative Olympic city and global cultural policy studies

Olympic city research

Tokyo 2020

  • Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad (2016 onwards) This project started with observations at the launch of the four year Cultural Olympiad programme and evolved into 2019, with final preparations towards the Olympic year. With the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games in to 2021, the research opens new questions as to the capacity for Olympic cultural programmes to retain relevance, be used during the interim period or risk being placed in the back burner.
  • See: A series of essays responding to the postponement announcement in 2020.
  • See all Tokyo 2020 stories

PyeongChang 2018

Rio 2016

  • Brand image of Brazil in the wake of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (2016-2017) – Project funded by a British Academy Newton Fund, involving a collaboration with the University of Sao Paulo, as well as inception funding from Brazilian communication agency Aberje. This research has enabled detailed analysis of national and international narratives of Brazil and its two main urban hubs, Rio and Sao Paulo, as centres for creativity and artistic innovation. The research asks the question: have the Olympic and Paralympic Games contributed (or hindered) the portrait of Brazil as a creative nation?
  • See all Rio 2016 Stories

London 2012

  • London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Legacy Evaluation (2011-2013) – Research commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad Steering Group, involving the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), Arts Council England, Department Media Culture and Sport, Legacy Trust UK. The research looks into the cultural, social and related economic legacies of hosting this programme and the associated London 2012 Festival.
  • London 2012 Knowledge Transfer (2011-2012) Research coordinated by Dr Vassil Girginov with funding from Podium, the Further & Higher Education Unit for the London 2012 Games. Beatriz’ contribution is focused on the analysis of the bidding, delivery and legacy framework for the Cultural Olympiad and has resulted in a chapter contribution within a two part monograph, published by Routledge.
  • See all London 212 stories

Beijing 2008

  • Cultural programming at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games (2008 ) Research funded by the Universities’ China Committee in London. This project involved working as an embedded journalist within the Non-Accredited Media Centre at the Beijing Games and field observations of the various 2008 Olympic Arts Festivals and fringe cultural activities in the city during Games time.

Sydney 2000

  • Analysis of the programming, management and promotion of the Sydney 1997-2000 Olympic Arts Festivals (1999-2002) – Research supported by a Mobility Grant by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), an Olympic Research Grant by the Olympic Studies Centre at the UAB, and grants by the International Olympic Academy and the Olympic Museum –International Olympic Committee. The research results have published as The Olympic Games and Cultural Policy (2012).

Sochi 2014

The Culture and Education District, London

The Institute of Cultural Capital conducted this scoping study for the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2017.

The study assessed the value of the emerging Culture and Education District (CED, rebranded as East Bank since 2018) in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. This is a case study of a ‘creative clustering’ in the making.

The study involved ten months of expert observation and analysis by a multidisciplinary research team led by Dr Beatriz Garcia, with Dr Michael Atkins as lead research support and Stephen Crone as report editing assistant.

In conducting this research, the Institute of Cultural Capital & the University of Liverpool (Image and Governance strand) worked in collaboration with the What Works Research Centre & the London School of Economics (Economic strand), City University (Creative strand) and Loughbourough University (Social strand).

Find below access to the main reports produced as part of this research.

Areas of assessment: Potential impact areas

Background material

When the Games can’t go on

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games have been postponed. It is only the fourth time this happens in 124 years, the only three previous occasions being due to World War I and World War II.

The global virus pandemic of 2020 is forcing a halt on all international sport and cultural mega-events and this raises meaningful questions regarding the significance of such large celebrations and the extent to which it is essential or not to see them happen.

In this collection of articles and short film, Dr Beatriz Garcia discusses the importance of finding creative ways of sharing stories about major events and what makes them meaningful. Beatriz argues in favour of artists – as distinct from marketing and communication teams – playing a leading role to tell such stories while on lockdown.

Reflections from Beatriz Garcia

the main test of value for mega-events is their capacity to act as platforms for storytelling that inspire communities worldwide.

As I have argued for the last 20 years, the main test of value for mega-events is their capacity to act as platforms for storytelling that inspire communities worldwide. In this sense, far from seeing current cancellations and postponements as a route into oblivion, organisers should find alternative ways of sharing what it has taken them to prepare for their event and the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people are not just financially but emotionally invested in such grand occasions.

The Tokyo Games organisers were starting their story-telling on the 12 March, with the initiation of their torch relay, which was lit in Ancient Olympia and promoted through pre-recorded promotional films of open air runners and cheering crowds. It was the worst timing imaginable and the narrative, unadapted as it was to the news of the day, felt inappropriate to a week marked by growing numbers of nations going into population lockdown. With the formal postponement of the Games, organisers now have time to rethink and repurpose their narrative. There is much that can be shared about what has taken place since preparations started in 2013, what Japan has been building for and what explains the value and significance of these Games in our times.

Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, and this was the chance for Japan to tell the story of rebuilding their nation in the aftermath of World War II. It will be fascinating to observe how Japan may tell us the story of what it takes to host the Games again in the aftermath of a global pandemic. In this sense, it is a valuable challenge to have the leaders of the largest sporting mega-event in the world use their skills and resources to share and explain the stories behind the Games, that is, the cultural and societal context to the sporting competition and theit multibillion infrastructure investments.

Why do the Olympics continue to attract the attention and support of over 206 nations, 124 years after they were originally launched?

Why do the Games matter?

Why do we care?

  • See my article for The Conversationfocusing on Tokyo 2020.
  • See my article for Arts Professional, discussing why now is the time to look beyond mega-events as catalysts for real estate growth and commercial profit and rethink why we need them.
  • See a short (home made!) video, here

Follow additional stories on the Olympic Games via  Culture @ the Olympics.

Paris 2024 Cultural Olympiad

Beatriz Garcia is in Paris responding to a day workshop on the Paris 2024 Cultural Olympiad. She will be talking to key local stakeholders representing la Ville de Paris and the rapidly developing and newly redefined boroughs (établissements public territoriales) surrounding the Olympic Park site in Seine Saint Denis. They are : Plaine Comune, Est Ensemble, Paris Terres d’Envol and Grand Paris Grand Est.

There is plenty to discuss as France gets ready for the Olympic cultural race, with high ambitions for a Cultural Olympiad that may be launched soon after the end of Tokyo 2020 and will be the platform to communicate narratives of ‘Europe’ after three editions of the Olympic Games in Asia, and the follow up summer Olympic Games going back to the USA (Los Angeles 2028).

With forty towns in the Seine Saint Denis area, what are the opportunities to tell stories of place and locality we know little about when thinking of the French capital? How can small places contribute to big global cultural narratives? How can a mega event empower micro festivals and deeply rooted neighbourhood conversations that may inspire the rest of the world?

See also previous story on Paris 2024

PyeongChang 2018 Culture Highlights

Two days into the Winter Olympic Games, our director, Beatriz Garcia, shares her Cultural Olympiad hightlights:

  • Dual cultural programming: Cultural Olympiad / Culture 2018 Plus
  • Dedicated transport: Cultural Olympiad Shuttle
  • Dedicated colours: Hot pink branding for culture
  • Korean fun: K-Pop Festa
  • Art + Sport links at Games info points

Find additional stories on PyeongChang 2018 published via the Culture @ the Olympics magazine.

Cultural Olympiad / Culture 2018 Plus

  • Cultural Olympiad information is distributed through two interrelated channels:
    • the official Games (Cultural Olympiad) website, managed by the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, focusing on activity happening within the Olympic Park and Olympic Plaza
    • the culture2018.com website, which operates in parallel and focuses on activity happening outside the Olympic venues. This is the programme with highest visibility in Gangneung, the main city/urban environment at these Games

Cultural Olympiad Shuttle

  • The main Culture 2018 venues can be accessed through a dedicated shuttle, that has proved very popular with locals and Olympic tourists alike. It takes you to the beach areas, where two nightly shows take place (one dedicated to fire, another to the moon), as well as to the main site of the area’s contemporary Biennale (dedicated to exploring a ‘Dictionary of Evil’, quite an interesting choice, at Games time!). The shuttle also takes audiences to a selection of theatre spaces, where one of the top highlights takes place, what organisers name Korea’s response to ‘Cirque du Soleil’, including performances by the troupes who presented work at the Opening Ceremony.

Hot Pink branding

  • Pyeongchang 2018 is following on the steps of London 2012 by choosing hot pink as the colour of choice for its Cultural Olympiad. This is combined with a striking emblem, based on the Korean alphabet (‘hangeul’) which is representative of Korean cultural heritage.

K-Pop Festa

K-Pop Festa #Kpop
  • Alongside a wide range of traditional craft displays and presentations of Korean heritage, the cultural programme makes an emphasis on fun and K-Pop is a top highlight throughout. K-Pop acts are present nightly at the Medals Plaza, following on the presentation of medals to the athletes. Beyond this, a special ‘Festa’, bringing the most popular bands of the moment, was also put together on the first night of the Games. The event was a memorable open air stravaganza, fit to combat the staggeringly freezing temperatures at these Games


Art+Sport links

Visibility of the cultural offer throughout official Games info points

  • Every edition of the Games brings along a cultural programme. However, the cultural programme tends to be promoted outside the main sporting venues, focusing on traditional arts audiences & media as opposed to Games fans and sport journalists.
  • In Pyeongchang, we have observed a clear committment to including Cultural Olympiad highlight brochures within the majority of sporting venues information points.

Building bridges between Olympic cities and the Olympic Movement

OneYearToGo - 62 of 77

We have been awarded one of only six Advanced Olympic Research Grants by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), for a research project titled ‘The value of global cultural policy-making: Building bridges between Olympic cities and the Olympic Movement through transnational cultural narratives’.

The project will document the testing and implementation of the first IOC Cultural Action Plan during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and its development in the lead up to Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020.

Dr Garcia has been accredited by the IOC in my capacity as academic observer and international cultural policy expert with 17 years experience documenting the Olympic Games. During her time in Rio, she will contribute to shaping the first dedicated Olympic cultural observers programme and will offer recommendations for its handover to Pyeongchang, host of the 2018 Winter Games and Tokyo, host of the 2020 Summer Games.

The research aims to answer the following questions:

  • In which ways can a global IOC Cultural Action Plan contribute to the Olympic Games cultural narrative?
  • In which ways does this Action Plan portray the International Olympic Committee’s contemporary cultural vision?
  • What can the Olympic Games enable culturally that is not possible through other types of cultural policy interventions?

This will be achieved by meeting the following objectives: 

  • To assess the impact of the new IOC Cultural Action plan on the cultural narrative of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
  • To assess the capacity for the IOC Action Plan (as projected in Rio and promoted through IOC Culture & Heritage Foundation activities) to inform the cultural strategy and evolving narrative of the Pyongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
  • To assess the effect of a unifying Olympic cultural framework and Games-time cultural narrative on public perceptions of the IOC as a transnational cultural actor.

Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad

Youth, heritage, empowerment and nationwide celebration

Article originally published by Beatriz Garcia via Net TAM in 2018 (In English | In Japanese)

The Cultural Olympiad has been an essential component of every edition of the Olympic Games since 1912. Despite its long history, the Olympic cultural programme is one of the least well known dimensions of the Olympic Games. This is in part due to the varied ways in which the programme has been delivered and named over the years (from Olympic Art Competitions, to Olympic Art Festivals and, since Barcelona 1992, Cultural Olympiad).

Tokyo is committed to delivering a Cultural Olympiad and launched it in 2016, just after the end of the previous Games in Rio 2016. The promise was that of a four year journey (an ‘Olympiad’) in order to ensure a strong cultural foundation for the Games.


The World Forum on Sport and Culture in October 2016
contributed to launching the Cultural Olympiad
© Beatriz Garcia

I have been observing the positioning and development of Tokyo’s cultural programme and the following are my highlights and expectations for the future.

Explaining Japan to the Japanese

A noticeable aspiration of the Tokyo Cultural Olympiad is its emphasis on reaching out to today’s Japanese youth in order to help them reconnect with Japanese culture. In my discussions with organisers during 2016 and 2017, I was struck by their aspiration to explain Japan to the Japanese first, before going out to explain it to the rest of the world.

During an interview with the team at the organising committee (TOCOG) in 2016, one representative noted that:

“Japanese students don’t experience much Japanese traditional culture. 2020 will feature and involve Japanese students – so that they can experience their own culture.”


I believe this is a fantastic aspiration and I have already noticed some important steps forward, such as the contributions by kyogen actor Ippei Shigeyama to the World Sport and Culture Forum. Shigeyama, a young actor, was able to explain the ancient traditions of kyogen in a language and style that was attractive to the younger generations and explained how through the Cultural Olympiad and other international initiatives he is working on renewing the genre, combining it with contemporary forms and even inviting international interpretations and collaborations.

Advancing the disability arts movement

Tokyo has been looking into London 2012 as its key referent for the Cultural Olympiad. Representatives from London 2012 have been invited numerous times to give talks and share the learning out of what counts as one of the largest Olympic cultural programmes in recent history. An important aspect of London 2012 was the high profile billing offered to its disability arts programme – Unlimited – which bridged across the Olympic and Paralympic Games and made it apparent the sophisticated and wide ranging approach taken by disability artists across the UK – their work was long established in Britain, but the Games helped reach out to the mainstream and be noticed internationally in ways that had not been possible before.

For Japan, exploring and showcasing the work of disabled artists comes as an important step forward, as there is not as much tradition in supporting and promoting the work of artists with disabilities as was the case in the UK pre-Games. From discussion into how to improve accessibility to existing theatres, to discussion about the diversity of artistic expression regardless of physical ability, this is an important dimension of Tokyo’s Olympic programme that the Cultural Olympiad aims to spearhead across the country. The leading programme in this area is titled Turn and it started with pioneering collaborations taking place between London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 disabled artists.


Turn is one of the flagship programmes for Tokyo Cultural Olympiad,
involving support and collaboration with disabled artists from London 2012 and Rio 2016.
© Beatriz Garcia

Nationwide programming

Another aspiration of Tokyo’s Cultural Olympiad that has been inspired by London 2012 is the commitment to make the programme nationwide, well beyond Tokyo as the principal host city. This has been broadly welcome by cities and regions across the country, keen to show to the world that Japan is much more than Tokyo and Kyoto, and that Japanese culture flourishes in every region. I am keen to observe how the Cultural Olympiad builds on the extensive work of existing Japanese cultural networks, from the network of Japanese creative cities to the growing positioning of Japan’s cities of culture.

From Tokyo 1964 to Tokyo 2020

But it is clear that Tokyo 2020 does not need to learn everything from London 2012. Tokyo has in fact a rich tradition to look back to, thanks to its hosting of the Olympic Games in 1964, a significant time for national re-building post World War II. Tokyo 1964 was a Games edition that left a noticeable cultural mark, particularly in terms of its world-leading approach to graphic design. I believe that re-telling and re-connecting with the cultural legacy of 1964 offers a great – and relevant – opportunity for positioning and demonstrating what is unique to Tokyo 2020 from a creative as well as Olympic heritage point of view. I would hope the Cultural Olympiad can contribute to telling this story.


Copyright © International Olympic Committee (IOC) – All rights reserved. Reproduced under licence from the IOC

An Asian era for the Olympics

Finally, I am keen to see how the relationship between South Korea, Japan and China is explored through the Cultural Olympiad. Having three subsequent editions of the Games in such prominent Asian nations with such rich and complex cultural relationships brings a remarkable opportunity to engage in cultural diplomacy and making a significant contribution to cultural narratives of Asia, well beyond the Games. PyeongChang in 2018 ensured there was a strand of Korea-Japan-China programming within its Cultural Olympiad.

I recommend Tokyo 2020 follows on these foundations and uses the Cultural Olympiad as a platform for this internationally significant dialogue. A possible point of referent for this is the well-established East Asian Cities of Culture network, which is a collaboration and exchange between these three Olympic hosting nations.

Related links

How have the Olympics changed Rio?

A reflection from Beatriz Garcia, originally published in 2017

As academics, we have no choice but to jump onto the sound bite bandwagon if we want to remain relevant in the era of the 140 character statement. Punchy headlines and short articles (“800 words max, please”) have become important vehicles for scholars to shape the debate about important – and indeed complex – issues that one might feel are best left to the informed nuance of refereed journals and monographs. (Who has the time and will to read those, in small screens, on the go?).

On the morning after the Rio 2016 Closing Ceremony (Monday 7am – Brazil time) I decided to put forward a piece on the immediate to medium term cultural legacies of post Olympic Rio. I had been asked for 800 words, of course, but I delivered 1,600. The subsequent edits were dramatic. From headline to bottomline. A sharper piece. An easier to read piece. Probably, as well, an easier to misjudge piece. But I agreed to these changes. And a noticeable bunch of email, direct commentary and tweet reactions later, I have experienced the consequences.

The piece ran “Don’t believe the doom mongers”. In its edited form, it argues in favour of the many existing examples of positive urban change for Rio in the wake of the Olympics. It makes a point about the need to acknowledge that there are positive changes. The reason for such emphasis is not based on evidence (nor belief) that everything is rosy and wonderful in Rio – nor that the Games have been exclusively a force for good. It is rather an attempt to counter balance the dominant (academic and journalistic) narrative around everything that is wrong about Rio as an Olympic city – a call for some ‘white’ in the otherwise consistently ‘black’ take around the urban dimensions and consequences of these Games.

International commentators on the Rio Olympics have generally focused their attention on two areas: on the one hand, the staged events (ceremonies) and sport competitions, which, in line with tradition, have mainly been presented with the euphoria of the committed sports fan; on the other hand, commentary around organisational scandals and abuses against local communities. The latter is an important (and well documentend) side of the story that is common to all mega-event media narrative cycles – see reporting on Athens, Beijing and London – but that, in Rio, has been accentuated due to Brazil’s chaotic political climate and, understandably, due to the extreme urban tensions and unequal conditions in the city.

I have chosen to highlight what has gone right in Rio because we are witnessing some truly important opportunities for ‘transformation’ (the ‘go-to’ word in the official Games narrative). Transformation in Rio has been made possible despite the apparent chaos and deeply embedded tensions thanks to some (yes, some) good institutional planning and a lot of dedicated entrepreneurial – as well as socially conscious – individual initiative.


My own observations of Rio during the Games have convinced me that the Boulevard Olimpico is a major coup for the Olympic city that has changed (and will continue to change) the way residents relate to each other and their city. Rio’s ‘Centro’ has now an actual centre that reflects the best learning in public realm management. It has been immediately appropriated by the city at large thanks to the impetus provided by a ‘big party’ everyone wanted to be part of – after much scepticism and doubting. Now, of course the latter sentence is ‘journalistic’ rather than academic. Did absolutely ‘everyone’ want to be part of the party? Probably not (though four million – or even three, if you doubt the official line – is not a bad start). However, my claim that this area is a major cultural legacy of the Games and one of the best examples of sustainable transformation for Rio is not just a catch-phrase: detailed academic papers could (and will) be written about this and prove the elements that evidence good planning – and good timing.

After seventeen-years directly observing and documenting experiences in nine Olympic cities (plus the legacy in my hometown, Barcelona) I am totally confident about this observation and the significance for Rio to have achieved this: creating a new, shared space where very diverse communities (in a continuously divided city) feel safe, welcome and happy to spend their leisure time.


The commentary I offer on the benefits to favela life is not as deeply informed. I have not spent years in Rio’s favelas and I am not an expert in slum-living conditions, so of course I must exercise caution and have taken reactions to my piece seriously. Rio has been the first Olympic city where I have dedicated time and thinking to the particularities of such communities so as to understand whether Games-related legacies can trickle down beyond ‘formal’ (census-captured) neighbourhoods. I accept that I have had mixed views throughout my documentation process: the organisers told me that the Olympic education programme, Transforma, included all schools in Rio (favela schools too); that Games workforce opportunities were passed on to favela residents and special training programmes put in place to encourage applications; further, projects like Fight for Peace have targetted favelas especifically using the Games as an inspiration for community engagement. At the same time, it is apparent that there were many misunderstandings, that people felt excluded and not sufficiently visible in the Games’ central narrative. The cancellation of a large part of the official cultural programme (Celebra) also contributed to curtailing opportunities for direct participation and symbolic representation.

Despite all this, it is simply not true that the Games have only had negative effects on favela life. Forced evictions and the dark side of rushed pacification processes are important issues that have been extensively discussed. This discussion is the dominant background to favela-related Olympic city stories and includes well-informed and reflective pieces, as well as sensationalistic takes – with the latter particularly prominent in social media environments but also present in and amplified by many mainstream media. I have not found many pieces that embrace a discussion of both the negative and positive angles. It looks like we must take sides: black or white.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 11.40.16

Google search results to the request : “Rio 2016” “favelas” (29 August, 2016)

I have chosen to highlight the positive. And, one week on, with a bit of perspective, I accept that my angle may not have been precise enough. I accepted the catchy headline and the possibility to stir debate. But I was not clear enough on my actual purpose and concern: to bring a bit of ‘white’ to this ‘black’-dominated narrative so as to ensure we engage with less clearly-cut angles; and more than anything, to make a strong point about Rio as a complex and evolving city that has not just been a disaster zone ‘ravaged’ by the Olympic machinery. It is a city that, like Barcelona before it, was in need of a push to reconnect with its port spaces, needed to improve its public transport routes and needed to reclaim and rediscover public spaces, beyond the beach.

Porto Maravilhas, Parque Madureira and the fast-developing range of new arts community driven projects, new public transport links and extended facilities in a growing number of favelas are examples of improvement across Rio. The initiatives I mention in my article were pushed forward (and completed) thanks to the imperative for  ‘joint thinking’ that was imposed by the mega-event hosting process. Of course, there have also been many important fails (do I need to repeat that referring to achievements, completed and in development, does not deny that other projects have gone wrong?)


If we are happy to look at Barcelona 1992 as a good – or at least, decent – reference model for urban change, we need to embrace the possibility that Rio has done ‘some’ things right and that ‘some’ positive urban legacies will emerge and grow in the years to come. Barcelona also excluded some communities from its Games hosting process and its Vila Olimpica was riddled with problems. It had no favelas but it had La Mina. It was not all rosy in 1992. But (particularly, mainstream) commentators have been keen to focus on what worked well and Barcelona is hailed as one of the top examples of post-Olympic “success”. Why do we want to stereotype Rio as a failure?

Olympic-driven urban change poses challenges and opens opportunities. We seem to want ‘perfect’ examples of Olympic city success or failure. Rio is being targeted as an example of everything that is wrong. But I have seen a lot that is right – and as an academic, as well as a commentator, I believe it is essential to raise the debate and recognise both the black and white dimensions in this rapidly evolving post-Olympic city narrative.


My edited story is published here

The extended version of the original is here

Other stories about my research on Rio 2016 are here