Riding on the back of the euphoria of the FIFA World Cup South Africa has been touted as a potential host for the 2020 Olympics. This is further fueled by Olympic chief Jacques Rogge’s statement that he would be glad if a South African city made a bid to host the games. There must be substantial pressure on the IOC to hold the Games on the African continent. Rogge went on to say that Cape Town made a credible bid in 1997 to host the 2004 Games when they lost out to Athens.

However on Wednesday mayoral committee member for economic development Felicity Purchase said “I don’t want to be negative, but I don’t think in the short term we (Cape Town) are ready yet to do an Olympic bid.” She went on to describe the 1997 bid as naïve, and made the point that analysis showed that hosting smaller events had greater cost-benefit returns.

One of the biggest challenges is the requirement that the Olympics are a one city bid, which means limited national government support and all sport facilities need to be provided in the one area.

While Purchase was doubtful of a bid by the Mother City, Durban has had an eye on the Olympics for years and look to be the lead contenders in any South African bid: But is this realistic?

Perhaps it’s a Durban and South Africa bias, but experiences at the last four Olympics, and watching the six year World Cup build up leads me to believe that a Durban Olympics is possible but not without considerable challenges.

The FIFA world cup proved a country wide can-do attitude, and the Durban metropolitan area has many of the required facilities, or sites where facilities can be constructed.

For years the city has been developing the Kings park ‘sports zone’ which now has the Moses Mahbida Stadium as the jewel in the crown. However many more facilities will be required, with most of the current ones either requiring upgrading to meet the ever technological advances, or becoming training venues. What is often overlooked is the need for training and warm up venues.

Potentially the Kings Park zone can be taken from the Umgeni River, to Umgeni Road, to the M4 freeway and down to Commercial Road in the south, although this will require the release of Kingsmeade Office Park, and Municipal buildings. This ‘Zone’ follows the same principle as Beijing where cordons provided a secure area hosting Athletics, Fencing, Weight training, Boxing, Swimming Gymnastics, a range of public facilities, and the massive International Broadcast and Media Centres. Officials, media and athletes went through security screening at hotels or the village, but once inside the perimeter fence they were free to move wherever their accreditation allowed. The public screening was at the very limited number of gates, or prior to getting dedicated underground train link into the zone.    

In Beijing there were 28 sports with 302 events with a total of 31 venues in the city of which 12 were new, 11 existed and 8 were set up temporarily for the games. With over 10,000 athletes, and team officials who need secure accommodation the most condensed village requirements mean about a dozen 30 storey buildings each the size of the Southern Sun North Beach hotel.

These numbers pale however in terms of the organizers, media, and broadcast staff which account for another 20,000 most of who are lodges in other villages or official hotels.

Add in another 70,000 volunteers, which may be great for job creation, vocational experience and overall development but mount up the transport and accommodation challenges.

Add to this the potential 700,000 international visitors and another few million Southern African spectators who can be expected to visit over the ‘16 Days of Glory’ to appreciate both the potential and the challenge of the Games.

Attracting five or six million people to our beautiful city has major commercial impact, and yes a legacy that can last for decades, providing we do it successfully.

As with any event organization, you are only as good as your last event. Although successful the comparison of FIFA 2010 bringing 100,000 supporters to a handful of well spaced matches is insignificant compared with tripling the resident population for close to a month (the first arrivals could easily be three months before), and concurrently hosting a score of sports each and every day.

There is some relief in that all recent games have been allowed to use satellite venues. For instance in Athens 2004 soccer was held as far as Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, and in 2012 London will use Cardiff and Glasgow as venue for the beautiful game. In Beijing equestrian and sailing were at out of the city and even Hong Kong was used as a venue. These were air flights away which mean the Durban bid could utilize Gauteng and Cape venues for one or two sports.

However consider the last four Olympic cities: Atlanta, Athens, Sydney and Beijing. These Olympic parks were positioned in the sprawling metropolitan areas to be accessible from many different angles and this presents a challenge for Durban.

The Sport Zone, the accommodation and the attractions are all down on the flatter beachfront area which is isolated on the east by the Indian Ocean, on the south by the harbor.  Access is restricted from the north by the Umgeni River and there is a lack of sizable arteries serving the Sports Zone which is combined with a culture resistant to public transport. Additionally the use of the Zone impacts on the flow- through on the existing routes from the north, and south. Only the western access is relatively unrestricted.      

A replication of the high succesful Gautrain offers a potential solution with links to the new airport, via Durban North, Umhlanga and even Ballitto. Some form of additional southern link would be required to open up opportunities there, but the Olympics is where size does indeed count. It’s no coincidence that the Beijing airport terminal which is three kilometres long was the largest in the world at the time.

Attitude changes may be the greater and longer term challenge given that there is only a decade to get it right. The hosting of multiple major events on the same day must commence now.

In a province where weekly club road running, cycling and triathlon-type events were banned for the whole month of the World Cup this may require serious foresight and mind-bending for the federations, authorities and the public at large.  

Ironically FIFA 2010 would have been an ideal time to showcase a large well organized participation event.

At the 10 day long Berlin 2009 World Championships organizers hosted a 10,000 runner 10km event on the same city centre circuit, only two hours after the women’s marathon and the day before the men’s marathon. In Durban all other events were banned! What a loss of experience, a loss of development, a loss of visitor participation, a loss of show casing the sites and views of the city.

The fantastic new promenade, which when finished, stretches around seven kilometres from Ushaka to Blue Lagoon, has no formal purpose made access points for cycling, running or triathlon events; an incorrect surface texture for international events, and no practical way of demarking a longitudinal ‘competition’ zone in an area where there is continual cross traffic to and from the beach. Better forward planning, consultation and foresight could have solved these problems which are already rearing their head with the first clash of venues for the city-supported Spar Ladies race and the Sun Coast triathlon series on 29 August. 

Providing the financial backing and resources can be found, the concerns on our ability to host a Durban Olympics doesn’t lie in the big sporting picture that we associate with the Games, but with the practicalities logistics and provisions around the games; with the changing of culture, creation of new norms and attitude for everything from transportation to volunteerism; the sharing of a vision by the top to every citizen, and the acceptance of a ‘can-do’ approach.

If we are serious about the bid it needs to commence now, and hats off to City Manager, Mike Sutcliffe and the Durban leadership for bringing the 2011 Olympic Congress to the city.

This presents a fantastic opportunity to showcase the potential to the Olympic Family, but rather than ring-fence this occasion with a limit on public participation lets use the opportunity to show we can run multiple sport, lets pack the sports zone with players and spectators, lets gain experience of the moving people to, through and around events, despite the security issues.

There can be no better occasion to lay the foundation for a bid, but by next year there will only be nine years until everything must be in place ready for those four words “Let The Games Begin!”

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