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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - Stuff - Column

Christchurch-Queenstown Winter Olympics could fix a lot of problems

A Russian speed skating team at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Grant McLachlan argues that many facilities such as speed-skating rinks, luge tracks and ski-jumping towers are prefabricated, making it easy to dismantle and re-use them after an Olympics.

As the first snow of the season dusts Canterbury skifields, GRANT McLACHLAN says the time is ripe for the South Island to dream big and host a Winter Olympics.

OPINION: When a city needs rebuilding and there is a shortage of housing and public facilities, hosting an Olympics is a proven method to achieve those goals.

After 45,000 tonnes of German bombs devastated 1 million homes in London, the city hosted an Olympics in 1948 – rebuilding infrastructure, building new stadia, public complexes, and pre-fabricated or master-planned villages. Antwerp (1920), Innsbruck (1964) and Tokyo (1964) followed suit.

Olympics are a symbol of rejuvenation and optimism for the future. Seoul, Barcelona, London, Calgary, Salt Lake City and Sarajevo proved that Olympics can make money while leaving legacy infrastructure that fulfils future demands. Former Olympic villages often becomes social housing, venues become tourism attractions, and public transport – such as gondolas, trams, bridges, and airport facilities – solve many long-standing congestion problems.

Winter Olympics can rejuvenate multiple destinations. Alpine events are often held at resorts considerable distances from hosting cities' winter stadium events.


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Olympics encourage innovation and create industries. IKEA, which mass-produces boxed kitset furniture, grew considerably from the 1956 Stockholm Olympics. Think of pre-fabricated luge tracks, temporary stadiums, portable ice rinks, inflatable buildings, temporary gondolas, snow making, and containerised accommodation. Some venues have even been dismantled and reassembled elsewhere for other events.

In New Zealand, entire industries have developed around large-scale public works. Pre-fabricated class rooms and housing started with the need to build temporary towns in isolated areas to build dams, tunnels and railways. Our isolation required innovation to substitute imports with more suitable alternatives.

When a city needs rebuilding, there needs to be a unifying goal or event that represents to residents and the world that the city is not only back on its feet but has a spring in its step.

Christchurch has proven that it can host events. Although the 2011 earthquakes came too close to the 2012 Rugby World Cup, the city was ready for the 2015 Cricket World Cup. Facilities were made from recycled and prefabricated methods.

Christchurch is awash in insurance and government money, with a desperate need of private investment to sustain the economic viability of the city. Queenstown needs a short and sharp injection of public infrastructure and private housing to prevent the destination from bursting or imploding.

Over the past three decades, several groups have looked at the feasibility of Queenstown and Christchurch hosting a Winter Olympics. Due to the timing of our ski seasons, our ski fields are de-facto Olympic training venues, hosting events in the lead-up to northern hemisphere events.

The stumbling block has often been "What do we do with venues afterwards?"

The simple solution may be to do what other hosts have done. Simply dismantle the venues and sell them to future hosts or other training facilities. Luge tracks, ski jumps, and speed skating rinks are already pre-fabricated. Cirque de Soleil and Disney on Ice have travelled here with their own rinks and venues.

Vancouver hosted its opening ceremony at sea level in its indoor stadium. Why can't Christchurch?

Christchurch already has indoor facilities that can host ice hockey, ice skating, and short-track speed skating.

But what's important is that Christchurch and Queenstown will have a much-needed injection of investment and people to get things done. Much of the pre-fabrication can be shared throughout the region, leaving an export industry.

Queenstown will need a new Olympic village to accommodate athletes, media, officials and volunteers. After the event, the village can be affordable housing for tourism employees or relocated to where needed.

Temporary infrastructure might be so popular that it is feasible to keep it. London found this the case with the Greenwich gondola. An airport tram or gondola to the ski fields might prove a hit.

Many of our main centres still rely on legacy infrastructure. Thames, Dunedin, Oamaru, and Central Otago still rely on the infrastructure left from the 1860s gold rushes for alternative uses.

Our greatest risk is ourselves. Proper strategic planning and transparent processes should replace opportunism and price-gouging. An Olympic Games would put Christchurch under the international spotlight to prevent some of the shady practices during the slower-than-expected rebuild.

No southern hemisphere city has hosted a Winter Olympics. At no other time has a city been in a better position to bid for one. It will leave a lasting legacy.

So when it is floated that New Zealand could host a Winter Olympics, let's not resort to knee-jerk reactions thinking that it is beyond our capabilities. We're already there for most of what's required and we can make it profitable from the rest that we need to invest.

- Grant McLachlan is a former tourism and infrastructure analyst and hearings commissioner.

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