Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ROME 1960: The Olympics as a Catalyst for Urban Change

Mega-events such as Universal Expositions, World Fairs and the modern Olympic Games are short-term occasions that, since their inceptions, have consistently had a major impact on the urban system. They posses a unique ability to restructure civic plans and priorities, to form discussions about usage after the event, to promote urban redevelopment, and are instruments of ideologies that enthusiastically promote economic growth.[i] As a recent article in the International Journal of the History of Sport stated, “There is a constant intimacy between Olympic development and the evolution of host cities.” This assertion is greatly substantiated when discussing the Summer Olympics of 1960, when the Italian capital, Rome, secured the rights to host the Games of the XVII Olympiad. The Roman Games established a turning point in the Olympic history, as they became an archetype of the mega-event as a catalyst for significant urban change. From this spectacle in 1960 onwards, the Games began to have several extensive consequences on the local built environment, as the Olympic venues and infrastructure became key elements of the comprehensive urbanistic intervention.[ii] In addition, this physical capacity of the Olympics has generated several other effects, including a new image of the host cities and an enhanced sports culture.

To secure the hosting rights of the 17th Olympiad, Rome had to compete in an unprecedented race against fifteen other candidates, including four European and seven American cities. In June of 1955, after four failed attempts, the International Olympic Committee finally declared Rome as the next Olympic headquarters. Although the Second World War had ended a decade before, these Games were to be the first ones staged after the period of post-war austerity, thus amassing a potential to create great change. Indeed, the Olympic plan that was carried out over the next half-decade in Rome truly presented the Games as a forceful trigger for major urban development and improvement that went well beyond the construction of sports facilities.[iii]

With five years to prepare for the 1960 spectacle, the city of Rome sought to develop three focal zones for Olympic activities, and to design a comprehensive system of transportation infrastructure throughout the city. The main sporting facilities were clustered in three separate sites, two in the northern outskirts of the city, and one in the southern periphery, thus stretching the built area in two directions. The organizers capitalized on these areas where relevant facilities were already available: the Foro Mussolini sports complex constructed during the Fascist Era; the Flaminio area which had for several decades retained a particular character devoted mainly to sports events and leisure; and the E.U.R., a district south of the city center that was initially designed as an extraordinary setting for the 1942 Esposizione Universale Romana (E.U.R.), which never occurred because of WWII.

Announced in 1927, the original Foro Mussolini became the boldest new project announced by the Fascist regime. Completed in 1938, the sports complex reflected the regime’s efforts to undertake projects beyond those dealing with ancient sites in the historic center. Instead, the Foro would offer Rome a new “city” devoted to sports, physical fitness, and youth—a city of physical education in the tradition of the ancient gymnasium but in a modern form consistent with the regime’s program.[iv] Thus, its use as an Olympic center was an appropriate decision. Renamed the Foro Italico, the complex housed the revamped 80,000-seat Stadio Olimpico (formerly Stadio di Cipressi), the upgraded Stadio dei Marmi, the new Stadio del Nuoto, and the completed area in front of the immense Palazzo della Farnesina.

Across the river, in the Flaminio district, several more projects were realized. The old Stadio Nazionale was replaced with the new Stadio Flaminio, while the Palazzetto dello Sport, an indoor arena designed by Pier Luigi Nervi, was constructed to host boxing matches. The foremost project in Flaminio, however, was the construction of the Olympic Village. This residential complex boasted 1,800 apartments that would house all 5,348 participating athletes and their coaches.[v] After the two-week spectacle, the apartments were subsequently handed over to the state, and became the most successful intervention of public housing in the city.

More so than the vast Olympic Village at Flaminio, the most ambitious project assumed during this time was the revamping of the E.U.R. site. Although the district had originally been designed as the fairgrounds for the 1942 Rome Universal Exposition, the Olympic preparations nearly two decades later stimulated a major redevelopment. Some of the most important sporting facilities of the city were constructed here during this period, including the Palazzo dello Sport (today the nation’s largest sport arena), the Piscina delle Rose (swimming pool), the Laghetto dell’EUR (artificial lake) at the central park, the Tre Fontane sports training area, and the recently demolished Velodromo for track cycling competitions. In total, nearly three billion Liras were spent in the redevelopment of EUR.[vi]

Aside from the actual facilities constructed or improved at the Foro Italico, Flaminio and EUR, a major aspect of the Olympic plan was the network of roads that would connect these sites, located at opposite ends of the city periphery. Thus, the decision to use the Foro and EUR as Olympic clusters not only brought back to life images of the Fascist regime, but required the longest and most costly highways to link them. Two were built, running north-south at either edge of the city, and stimulating real-estate development all along their routes. Thus, Rome gained from infrastructural improvements undertaken with the Games in mind, especially the new roads and bridges built to connect the Olympic venues.

The main clusters were connected by a new thoroughfare called the Via Olimpica (Olympic Way), built just in time for the Games in 1960. During its construction, the Via Olympic was very controversial for being exceedingly expensive and laborious, and was nicknamed “the trail of gold,” in large part because it seemed that the extensive pathway was built to raise the value of nearby lands. Connected the Olympic Village and the Foro Italico in the north with EUR in the south, the Via used stretches of existing roads throughout its course, before crossing the Flaminio bridge (1951) and into the Olympic Village. The Corso di Francia, built between 1958 and 1960, was an elevated viaduct that bypassed the newly constructed Olympic Village and across the Tiber River, connecting Via Cassia and Via Flaminia with the center. In all, $2.8 million were spent on the network of internal roads, $6.4 million on the external road network, and another $3.5 million on the connection from north to south of the city. This was in addition to the $21 million spent to construct Fiumicino Airport, which was inaugurated just five days before Opening Day of the Games in 1960. As the total investment on the Olympic Games was approximately $45 million (64 billion Liras), 75 percent of the total expenses were set aside specifically for transportation-related infrastructural investments. Incidentally, this road network was the largest project of the Olympics, occupying 75 percent of the total land used for the event (12). These lavish developments even led to requests for the annulment of the next Summer Games because of the increasing scale and complexity of the Olympic urban commitment (13).

Aside from the Olympics-related projects discussed, the city also developed a new water supply system, new hotels, a new jetport, improved public transport, street lighting and illumination of monuments, and numerous decorative improvements to the city’s urban landscape. Thus, in many ways, Rome used the occasion in 1960 to reinforce its permanent facilities and urban infrastructure. The 1,800 apartments that housed the athletes in the Olympic Village were used after the Games as low-income housing. The Flaminio area as a whole was revitalized, after years of being covered with barracks. Major traffic routes amplified for the Games now accommodate the ever-increasing use of private automobile activity throughout the metropolis, especially the Olympic Way and the Corso Francia. Many of the sports facilities built or improved for the Olympics continue to be in use today, including the Olympic Stadium at the Foro Italico, the Palazzo dello Sport in EUR, and the Palazzetto dello Sport in Flaminio.[vii] Investing more than a third of all the funding for the Olympics on the airport at Fiumicino, Rome finally acquired its major international connection to the world.

In summary, the Rome Olympics of 1960 was a defining moment in the history of the modern Olympic movement, as it became the first major Olympiad to trigger a wide range of lasting urban improvements. Unlike the earlier productions of the Games, the Olympic sport spectacles since 1960 on have retained a vigorous tendency to stimulate and accelerate major developments such as new road systems, public transport initiatives, air terminals, urban renewal programs, tourist and cultural facilities, and parks and beautification projects designed to enhance the city’s landscape and environment. Indeed, the expenses involved in staging an Olympic celebration are now so excessive that host cities can often only justify the expenditure when it is seen as leading to a major program of regeneration and improvement. Thus, it can be said that the modern Olympics have developed from a comparatively small-scale beginning, and emerged as a remarkable catalyst of urban change and a considerable instrument for urban policy.[viii]

There are certain implications that surface as the modern Olympics continue to increase in scale and infrastructural requirements. Originally set out to be a celebration of human physical ability and cooperation through sport, it seems that the immensity of the spectacle has overshadowed its original philosophy. Most athletes are now professionals rather than amateurs (think of the 1992 NBA “Dream Team”); the Games have become dependent on commercial sponsorships and television rights (both of which first came into the picture during the Olympics in Rome); and the infrastructural commitments and scale of investment are so imposing that no Olympic Games have yet to be staged in South America or Africa. It will be especially interesting to observe what course the Olympic movement takes in future stages, as the most recent production of Beijing 2008 has certainly proven. The decision to allow the Chinese capital the hosting rights—despite concerns about mass displacement of entire communities, environmental hazards, human rights abuses, television coverage restrictions, a 40-billion-dollar production cost, etc.—was an indication of the International Olympic Committee’s interest in host cities and countries that are willing to extend themselves to their limit to stage a successful Games. Perhaps the Rome Games nearly half a century ago spoiled the Olympic Committee, opening its eyes to a new and incomparable spread of possibilities and influence that could be achieved through the Olympic Games, and justified in the name of fair play.

[i] Hiller, Harry H. “Mega-events, Urban Boosterism and Growth Strategies: An Analysis of the Objectives and Legitimations of the Cape Town 2004 Olympic Bid”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24.2 (2004): 450-1.

[ii] Liao, Hanwen, and Adrian Pitts. “A brief historical review of Olympic urbanization”. International Journal of the History of Sport. 23.7 (2006): 1232-3.

[iii] Gherarducci, Mario. I Giochi sono fatti: La storia, i personaggi e i resultati delle Olimipiadi dal 1896 ai nostri giorni. Milano: Zelig, (1996).

[iv] Painter, Borden W. Jr. Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, (2005). Pg. 14-15.

[v] Gherarducci, Mario.

[vi] Gold, John R., and Margaret Gold. “Olympic Cities: Regeneration, City Rebranding and Changing Urban Agendas”. The Authors Journal Compilation. (2008): Pg 305.

[vii] Kirk, Terry. The Architecture of Modern Italy. New Jersey: Princeton Architectural Press, (2005).

[viii] Kitchen, T. “Cities and World Events". Process, Town & Country Planning. 65.11: 1996. Pg 314-316


  1. It is amazing that Rome and other cities need the olympics to actually encourage the State to make urban improvements.