World Cities Day 2020: The power of sport to build healthier, more sustainable urban communities

Cities bring billions of people closer to jobs, education, culture and entertainment. Every year, millions of people migrate to urban areas in search of a better life. Since 2007, more than half of the world’s population has been living in cities. And by 2050, two-thirds of humanity – equal to 6.5 billion people – will be urban.

World cities day

Apart from the opportunities, however, the rapid growth of our cities poses major social, economic, health and environmental challenges. More than 90 per cent of all COVID-19 cases have occurred in cities, for example, highlighting some of the difficulties of living in densely populated areas.

Without action, these challenges will become more acute.

Resilient cities need healthy, strong and fair communities with access to open green spaces, public transport and physical activities.

Sport offers multiple solutions, helping make cities and human settlements more equal, resilient and sustainable. In doing so, sport supports the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s blueprint for a better, more sustainable future.  

Beyond health and physical activity, sport generates momentum for more green spaces, athletic facilities, jobs and economic growth. It also provides educational opportunities, bringing people together and keeping citizens engaged in their local communities.  Well-designed sports initiatives are a practical and cost-effective way to advance development and peace. They help to build fairer, more equal societies.

When a city or region hosts the Olympic Games, it can use the momentum created as an opportunity to shape its urban areas and help achieve its long-term sustainable development objectives, such as tackling challenges like poverty, disease, air pollution and climate change.

Ahead of World Cities Day, celebrated around the world on 31 October, we look at the examples of five Olympic cities that continue to benefit from hosting the Games, long after their Closing Ceremonies.

Tokyo, Japan

Le CIO invite les athlètes olympiques du monde entier aux Jeux de Tokyo 2020 2019 - IOC Greg Martin

Following the historic postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 organisers are committed to delivering Games that are “fit for a post-Covid world”. Measures are being implemented to maximise cost savings and increase efficiencies, while ensuring the Games become a symbol of unity, hope and human resilience.

But Tokyo 2020 already had a strong focus on creating human legacies, long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between 2016 and 2019, Tokyo delivered over 150,000 initiatives, engaging people in 90 million actions related to sport, culture and the environment, aiming to bring positive change to local communities and create a sustainable society. These included public donations of used mobile phones for the production of Olympic medals; collecting plastic to create recyclable Olympic podiums; and the selection of the Tokyo 2020 mascots by elementary school students.

Tokyo’s first Olympic Games, in 1964, also left a lasting mark on the city and its people. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II and economic collapse, the Tokyo 1964 Games were a turning point for the country. By showcasing new technologies such as the bullet train, satellite broadcasting and ultra-accurate time-keeping, they positioned Japan as a global leader in electronics. In doing so, they helped re-instil a sense of national pride and bind the nation’s citizens together.

Widespread television coverage, including the official Olympic film, played a major role in cementing the popularity of the Games. This popularity helped generate widespread support for Tokyo’s candidature to host the 2020 Games. Older generations, who had enjoyed the 1964 Games, were particularly enthusiastic. 

Tokyo 1964 left a physical impact on sport and local communities, too. The Sports Promotion Act, introduced ahead of the Games, helped promote sport at local and national levels. By 2018, for example, the new Japan Junior Sports Clubs Association (JISA) had helped 650,000 youngsters in 31,000 sports clubs all across the country.

Vancouver, Canada

2010 - IOC

Social inclusion was a vital legacy of the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, especially for the young, at-risk teenagers and indigenous communities. Vancouver was the first-ever host city to establish a non-profit organisation, since renamed LIFT Philanthropy, devoted to community legacies. It still works with social purpose organisations across Canada. One of these programmes, Action Schools! BC, helped half a million students to be active every day between 2002 and 2010.

This focus on inclusion reached indigenous communities, too. Established by the Games, for example, the Aboriginal Youth Sport Legacy Fund still supports amateur athletes of indigenous origin, including snowboarders, improving their quality of life and empowering them. “Because of the Games and the importance of the Games, the nations started to work together, and they have continued that work,” said Tewanee Joseph, former CEO of the Four Host First Nations Society, an indigenous community group. “It has been the greatest accelerator of relationships I have seen.”

London, United Kingdom

2012 - IOC

The London 2012 Games brought more than tourism and infrastructure development to their host city. The Games inspired communities to work together for long-lasting change. The Changing Places programme, for example, was an initiative to involve local people in improving their own neighbourhoods. The programme encouraged local students to identify concerns such as waste and pollution and then worked with them to fix the issue. In doing so, it created a sense of ownership among the communities for the places where they lived.

Getty Images

The Games also generated jobs and economic opportunities. In the five years after the Games, some 110,000 jobs had been created in the six boroughs surrounding the Park, a rate of growth that was significantly higher than in the city as a whole, and more than three times the pace forecast in 2013.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself had 11,000 people working on it between the end of the Games and 2016, including more than 200 young apprentices. More than a quarter of the construction workforce was recruited from neighbouring boroughs, and the long-term operational jobs went mainly to local people.

Seoul, Republic of Korea.

2018 - IOC

More than 30 years after the Olympic Games Seoul 1988 came to a close in the Republic of Korea, the Olympic Park still stands as one of their most visible – and enduring – successes. Attracting an average 14,000 visitors each day, Seoul’s Olympic Park provides some much-needed space in a city of 10 million people.

The regeneration of Seoul created nearly 21,000 jobs and paved the way for the Republic of Korea to host other major events, including the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. And about half of all the operational staff were volunteers, connecting many of the country’s citizens with sport and the Olympic values. The 1988 Games helped generate a real sense of national pride.

Los Angeles, United States of America

World cities day 2019 - Getty Images

Host of the 1932, 1984 and upcoming 2028 Games, Los Angeles still celebrates its long Olympic legacy. The 1984 Games still hold the record as the most profitable in history, earning a surplus of USD 232.5 million. Part of these profits helped establish the LA84 Foundation, which later became a nationally-recognised leader of youth sport programmes and public education. Since its establishment in 1985, the Foundation has benefitted more than three million youngsters and their families. Its programmes still reach 30,000 children every year.

The 1984 Games also created a legacy of reinforced civic engagement in Los Angeles. The Keep Los Angeles Beautiful – Olympic Youth Beautification Programme organised community groups to clean up various parts of the city. This led to the planting of more than 20,000 trees and rose bushes across Olympic competition venues, training locations, schools and parks.

The spirit of community engagement can still be seen in Los Angeles through programmes such as those supported by the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works Office of Community Beautification.

World cities day LA 1984 Memorial Coliseum - IOC

That spirit is also at the heart of Los Angeles 2028.  Thanks to support from the IOC, LA28 is investing USD 160 million in youth sport across Los Angeles, making sport more accessible for children, particularly those in under-resourced communities. With the Games concept centred around “what we have, not what we’re going to build”, LA 2028 is making sure that it is the Olympic Games that adapt to their host, and not the other way around. Its “radical re-use” approach, for example, means that that not a single new permanent venue will be built for the 2028 Olympic Games, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will be used to host the Opening Ceremony for the third time in 2028.

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