The ‘Live’ Olympics: The urban form as a venue
It’s been a few weeks now since the Olympics ended with a less than impressive live event which still garnered huge public interest on a global level. During the Olympics (some thoughts on the Paralympics later), along with Matt Frew and Jennifer Jones I was involved in a piece of live participatory research which captured a snapshot of the Olympic Live Site experience in London and Weymouth over the early part of the Games. Here are some observations about our experiences and some suggestions as to how the Olympic (and other sporting events) might learn from the success of events that used the urban environment as a stage:
– Live events on the streets of London and surrounding areas produced some of the most vociferous and passionate reaction from spectators (and participants). Their inherent openness, accessibility and community orientation brought them closer to the general public in a way that the ticketing fiasco pre-Olympics could only dream of. The road races were unique events with great atmosphere, fluid crowd control arrangements and provided ample opportunities for place marketers to show off the destination attributes of London and the South East.
– Olympic live sites were, although successful (according to the logic of attendance and ‘brand activation’) rather bland and formulaic in design and production. By this I mean that they adopted the formula employed by large music festivals over recent years, providing a secure, privatised space within London supported by a range of sponsors and other commercial interests to exploit the public’s appetite to view the Olympics. To protect those commercial interests, civic spaces (e.g. Hyde Park & Victoria Park) were gated and transformed into spaces of consumption. Come and watch the Olympics freely but leave your food and drink outside.
– Olympic live sites were celebrity dominated, culturally desolate (apart from some tokenistic cultural activities) and heavily securitised. Audiences were attracted by the promise of X-factor b-list celebrity performances and the promise of Cadbury-fuelled experiential consumption.
– Live audiences (outside the official venues) grew as Olympic fever increased and the Gold rush began. In this sense the
Live sites played a crucial role in reinforcing mainstream media narratives of the ‘success’ of the Games. The BBC coverage regularly drew on footage from the live sites to frame the narrative around mass hysteria and unparalleled public involvement. Whilst the Olympics did, undeniably, capture the attention of millions, the carefully crafted memory moments extracted from the live sites conveniently avoided the more mundane, quiet and bland experience my colleagues and I experienced when attending these spaces during our time in London.
There is lots more to say about the live experience of London 2012 and you can see and listen to some more of our thoughts by looking at our research blog for the project (www.researchinglivesites.net).