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Olympic territorialization

The case of Torino 2006
Egidio Dansero et Alfredo Mela
p. 16-26
Traduction(s) :
La territorialisation olympique


Les méga-événements tels que les jeux olympiques attirent de plus en plusl’attention dans le débat relatif aux transformations urbaines. Leurs dimensions sont multiples ; leurs plus importants impacts sont sans doute ceux de nature spatiale. Ils sont l’occasion d’entreprendre une transformation urbaine extraordinaire en termes de structure interne, d’image et de compétitivité externe. À partir de l’expérience des Jeux de 2006 organisés à Turin, cet article propose une approche théorique pour l’étude de la territorialisation de méga-événements et du défi problématique leur legs.

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  • 1  The Olympics, world soccer championships and the Papal Jubilee can be considered all global megaev (...)
  • 2  This paper stems from the studies of the Torino 2006 WOGs and their possible legacy conducted by t (...)

1This paper will examine the spatial effects of organizing a mega-event1– in this case the Torino 2006 XX Winter Olympic Games (WOGs)2– in the light of a specific line of interpretation based on the idea of the social production of space and the processes of territorialization (Lefebvre, 1974; Raffestin, 1980; Turco, 1988; Magnaghi, 2003).

2The mega-event is a process with a precise organization, where there is an intense interaction between the spatial and temporal dimensions: in every moment of the process – from candidature, to the preparation phase, the competitions themselves, and then to the postevent one – the space that the mega-event affects is used as a resource and is remolded to suit project goals that can change as the process proceeds.

3In this perspective, attention must first be focused on the spatially specific aspects of Torino 2006. From the territorial standpoint, the XX WOGs show a peculiar feature: the "bipolar character" of the event, which used the urban space of a medium-sized metropolis, plus another pole for the snow sports spanning an Alpine area that includes four valley systems (Susa, Chisone, Germanasca and Pellice) and the town of Pinerolo. Together, the nine localities that hosted competition venues and the two training areas engendered a complex structure that also included the so-called "midlands" (Dansero, De Leonardis, Mela, 2006), areas that skirt the edges of the metropolis and encompass the lower reaches of the valleys, and, though they did not host sports events, are crisscrossed by the web of communications between the city and the mountains.

4One of the results of this bipolar structure was the central role that the Games assigned to an urban space located at a significant distance (as much as 90 kilometers) from the mountains. This "metropolitization" of the Olympics, however, also brought about the rediscovery of a historic relationship between Torino and the Alps, and led to the formulation of scenarios for leveraging the Olympic legacy based on strengthening this relationship.

5The following paragraphs will begin with a discussion of the concept of "Olympic territorialization" (par. 2). We will then look at how the Games have fit in with the larger context of change now affecting the area (par. 3), examining the various facets of the Olympic territorialization process (par. 4). The paper will conclude with an analysis of the challenges that arise with the de-territorialization and re-territorialization that began as the Games came to an end (par. 5).

Territorialization: getting a handle on the processes

6What, exactly, do we mean by Olympic territorialization? To return to the formulations advanced by Raffestin and Turco, territorialization is the production of territory, which is in turn a space produced by the action carried out by syntagmatic actors (i.e., who implement a program). It is thus a space to which human energy and work has been applied (Raffestin, 1980) and as such is freighted with anthropological value (Turco, 1988).

7Olympic territorialization takes place through a process that, from the moment a city announces its candidature and is then selected to host the Games, sets off a series of transformations to make the site suitable for the event. These changes are followed by a period of de-territorialization at the end of the Olympics, when many of the infrastructures associated with them are dismantled, and sometimes abandoned. The final stage, should it occur, is the re-territorialization that takes place when the territory that hosts the event is able in some way to re-appropriate the Game’s legacy and convert into an asset, in the sense of an endowment, a gift of memory, for future generations, and into territorial capital (OECD, 2001; Zonneveld and Waterhout, 2005).

  • 3  TOROC: Organizing Committee for the Torino 2006 Olympic Games. For a map of the actors in the Olym (...)

8What we see at work, then, is a cycle of territorialization, de-territorialization and re-territorialization (the T-D-R cycle) which is specifically produced by the mega-event and can thus be interpreted as a the production of a "project territory" modeled on the megaevent’s needs. To some extent, this territory is the outcome of the attempts to strike an uneasy balance, between global needs (those of the IOC, the sponsors, and so forth) and the local needs of the country and region that host the Games, their community institutions, and the many stakeholders involved. Olympic territorialization, moreover, inasmuch as it is the production of new territory, is interwoven with the "normal" dynamics of change that are already operating in the "context territory" through a combination of T-D-R cycles that are independent of the mega-event. Additionally, while we can say that the project territory is in this case the area under the direct control of the actors who made the mega-event possible (TOROC first and foremost3) and the context territory is the entire set of resources and actors who did not have a direct hand in the event but are nevertheless present in the Torino 2006 territory, it must also be borne in mind that several actors – and the municipalities in particular – in reality did their work at the "seam" that joins the two territories, with measures that targeted both the material aspects of spatial planning and urban imaging.

9It must also be pointed out that the T-D-R cycles for the "project and context territory" are not subject to the same dynamics, as they differ in how they unfold over time. Whereas the latter has no set timeframe, the former exhibits a time structure whose entire aim lies in getting the mega-event up and running. Once the Games’ opening ceremonies take place, in fact, the project has reached its definitive form, and any gaps or shortcomings it may have can no longer be remedied; when the Games come to an end, we have the beginning of a stage where the project territory, by selectively reorganizing itself and embarking on new programs, gradually returns to the same dynamics as the context territory.

Post-Fordist transition and the Olympics

10In 1998, when it announced its bid to host the WOGs, Torino saw its candidature as a sterling opportunity to step up the pace of post-Fordist re-territorialization, easing the transition away from the old one-company town to a model based on a plurality of different roles and callings, not just by making material changes in the territory, but also through attention to how it is perceived, and in particular to its international image. These goals match those of the Alpine towns in the upper Susa and Chisone valleys, who saw the mega-event as a chance to boost their competitiveness in winter tourism by extending and improving their infrastructures and accommodation facilities, as well as through image-building efforts.

11All of this took place against a backdrop marked by major infrastructure projects (including the Crossrail System, the subway, the new high speed/high capacity rail line to Milano and the controversial high speed Lyon-Torino rail line in the Val Susa), and where there had long been a desire to set up governance processes that would prove less hierarchical and more inclusive than those typical of the city’s Fordist heyday: a desire whose clearest manifestation was the decision to produce the Torino Internazionale Strategic Plan in 1998 (Pinson, 2002).

12For Torino, Olympic territorialization thus signaled a sharp break with past Fordist ways, though it continued to tread familiar ground in following urban renewal policies launched by the 1995 Master Plan. The Olympics made it possible to move ahead more quickly in repurposing the detritus left by the previous cycle, such as the rundown neighborhoods and abandoned factories stretching along the rail line that cuts across Torino. Converted and given a fresh lease on life, these areas have assumed a new centrality in the city, forming a backbone district that extends southwards to Fiat’s former Lingotto plant, now renovated as a showpiece for the new Torino.

13For the Alpine towns, Olympic territorialization builds on the long-standing economic base and place-specific resources of these areas, with their concentration on snow sports, renewing their infrastructures and the attractions they can offer to tourists. In any case, the processes of change that took place in both Olympic poles share a dominant ideology: the paradigms of territorial competitiveness and modernization. In a completely unprecedented way, a number of different territorial systems – the Torino metropolitan area, the Pinerolo area, the high valleys, and the "midlands" – are thus linked together in a single project territory: in this sense, Torino 2006 can be seen as the voluntary construction of local cohesion. This project territory is the product of a local network of players who shared certain development plans for the mega-event and cooperated with each other in fulfilling them by leveraging the territory’s resources and potential. And in doing so, they were able to make that territory into the point of convergence for the attention and strategies of supra-local networks: the IOC and the Olympic world, the government and the many other supra-local actors.

Producing the Olympic territory: nomination, reification, organization

14Territorialization can be seen as an encounter – and clash – between different territorializing acts. These acts can be grouped into three categories (Turco, 1988): naming, reification and organization. Respectively, the acts in these categories aim at the symbolic, material, and sense control of the territory; as we will see, these processes are at work in all stages of the mega-event, and produce changes that will inevitably overlap and intertwine.

15At the naming level, all Olympic events have given us examples of accidental identifiers: the Olympic stadium, the Olympic villages. This adjectivization may last only as long as the time of the mega-event, or it may survive it, even becoming a pretext for strategies that exploit the power of the name for a variety of symbolic and material purposes (marketing the event, creating a "territorial quality stamp" or furthering territorial marketing policies).

16In the case of Torino 2006, places are invented (the "Olympic territory", the "Lingotto Olympic district") and are transformed (Piazza Castello becomes "Medal Plaza", Piazza Solferino becomes the "Sponsor Village", the upper Susa and Chisone valleys become the "Olympic valleys") and this naming is the first act of territorial production, as in every pragmatic urban marketing strategies.

Figure 1. Torino 2006: a map of the Olympic territory.

Figure 1. Torino 2006: a map of the Olympic territory.

17Olympic naming thus begins as early as the bidding process. This is also when we start seeing "symbolic control over the environment" as references to the "event territory" progress from the generic to the increasingly specific, using the classic terminology of the Olympic lexicon, where the synthesis of space and time is perfectly summed up by the very name "Torino 2006". A referentially reflexive name (Turco, 1988), pinned to the year of the event, that also becomes symbolic through a process of legitimization that strives to give it currency in the image that Torino projects to the world, and in its own local representations of self. A temporal attribute that would fain forge a new identity, and that travels on the planetary scale, as is well illustrated by the Olympic spatial system’s appearance during the Games on what is now touted as the "true representation of the world", Google Earth.

18Even the Games’ logo and the opening ceremonies are used to assign new meanings and create a different image of the territory. The logo’s stylized Mole Antonelliana is not only the symbol of the city, but also evokes the soaring, steeple-like Monviso massif, conveying a sense of interchanged meanings and interactions between Torino and its crown of Alps.

19If symbolic control makes space more complex with a name that is, yes, symbolic, but at the same time performative in its hopes, it also simplifies it. Here, a telling example is the symbolic disappearance of whole swaths of the midlands and the overexposure of certain parts of the city: Medal Plaza, Lingotto, Media Village, the Olympic Arch, the national pavilions, the streets crowded with revelers for the all-night events, just about everything except the tarp-shrouded construction sites masked by the vermilion banners proclaiming the new "Look of the City", or the drab outskirts ringing the Olympic grandeur.

20The same is even truer for the mountain areas. Here, the image centers on the competition venue – the ski run, the bobsleigh track – and the television crews generally did not swing their cameras round to the Alpine scenery, to the space connecting the city to its mountains that modern data transmission networks cross but do not convey.

21With the Olympics, symbolic control also becomes practical control of space. Thus, it is the mega-event’s territorial appropriation that marks space, as is clear in the case of the top sponsors, be they global (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Samsung and Visa, to mention the biggest) or local (Fiat, San Paolo, the Piedmont regional administration) (Dansero, 2002): no other products can be advertised on the billboards in the Olympic territory during the Games; clothing with visible logos and brand names cannot be worn at the athletic venues, where only the products of the top sponsors can be consumed.

22There can be no doubt that reification, or the material transformation of the territory, is the most obvious aspect of Olympic territorialization, and the one that tends to last longest through the construction of infrastructures that are either directly connected with the event (the sports and tourist facilities), support it (the road systems), or surround it. Here, the territorialization does not end once the whole physical panoply of the Olympics has been set up but goes on to "domesticate" space, with the bannered lampposts, the cleanswept streets, the security checks, the volunteers who control access to the venues, the lanes set aside for Olympic traffic.

23For Torino, this brought extraordinary material changes accompanied by several major innovations in the control and management of territorial and environmental transformations, such as the Strategic Environmental Assessment that played such a key role in planning for the Olympics, the environmental monitoring schemes (Gambino, Mondini and Peano, 2005), the development of sector-specific environmental plans to govern waste disposal, mobility, construction waste and water usage, and the introduction of environmental certification programs for communities and buildings hosting the Games: all factors that can provide a lasting heritage of good practices for the local area and the Olympic movement as a whole.

24Organization is the final aspect of territorialization, that introduces sense control by selecting milieus and constructing territorial artifacts whereby programs and strategies can be implemented. Seen in this light, the recent Olympic experience can be interpreted on at least two levels: the first is that of the individual Olympic venues; the second is that of the Olympic territory as a whole.

25At the micro-local scale, the individual venues – far more than mere containers – were designed and consumed as territorial structures: not just the Olympic and Media Villages, home and hub for the populous sports community (2573 athletes, accompanied by 2700 trainers and other staffmembers) and the equally populous group that distills the Olympics’ image (over 8000 journalists), but also Piazza Olimpica in front of the stadium and, above all, Medal Plaza, the televisive cynosure for the entire mega-event. These sites can be interpreted as "glocal" places, capable of triggering identity processes, even if they last only for the space-time of the event (Haugen, 2005). However clearly the landscape may reveal the organizing power of global forces outside these places, the local milieu has nevertheless made its presence felt, made every effort to be more than just a backdrop, to assert the close ties between the Olympic sites and their surroundings. The Olympic Village – and in fact there were three: in Torino, Sestriere and Bardonecchia – is always the heart of the Olympic community’s life, where local urban planning decisions and homegrown designs provide the setting for social relationships and patterns of consumption cast in the iron mould of the Olympic actors, molded in by the sponsors’ rules. Other places, like Medal Plaza and Torino’s entire historic city center, are more successful in making the local stand out and make itself heard against this enormous stage set, while the public – local and international at the same time – is the true protagonist of this frontier where project territory and context territory meet.

  • 4  For a discussion of the negotiated consensus-building and planning instruments introduced in Italy (...)

26On the larger scale, it must be stressed that the Olympic territory of Torino 2006, matches no earlier forms of spatial organization. Though lying entirely within the jurisdiction of the provincial administration, its own administrative structure is split between the municipality of Torino, the municipalities in the southwestern reaches of the metropolitan area, and five mountain communities (upper and lower Val Susa, the Chisone and Germanasca valleys, Val Pellice and the Pinerolo foothills). Even the initiatives designed to promote local development and tourism were, and still are, occupied in pursuing different goals: the area has two local tourist boards (ATL 2 "Montagnedoc" and ATL 1 "Turismo Torino"), and at least three separate supra-municipal initiatives for promoting development (two "territorial pacts"4for the Pinerolo area and Susa valley respectively, plus the Torino Internazionale strategic plan for the metropolitan area). Proposals to reorganize the approach used to promote sports and tourism began to be advanced only after the mega-event, when it was suggested that the two local tourist boards be combined.

Post-Olympic de-territorialization and re-territorialization: the challenge of the legacy

27From the standpoint we have chosen to take here, the question of the Olympic legacy (De Moragas, Kennet, Puig, 2003) must be seen as the endpoint of a T-D-R cycle that has been at work in the event’s project cycle, itself part of the T-D-R cycles that affect the larger context territory.

28Olympic territorialization has been followed by the de-territorialization (Table 1) of the temporary spatial system and the beginning of the latter’s problematic post-event re-territorialization, i.e., the reappropriation of these transformations by the context territory. Several roads can be taken: dismantling, costly and problem-ridden; reuse consistent with the structures’ Olympic purpose; conversion to other uses or, finally, consignment to oblivion, not in itself a permanent solution and by no means free from expense, as even unused buildings entail high management costs.

Table 1. The territorialization cycle

Table 1. The territorialization cycle

Dansero, De Leonardis, 2006.

29The risks, well known in the debate on the Olympic legacy, consist of producing an "excess of territorialization" (Turco, 1988), which rather than eliminating earlier territorial shortcomings (in public services, infrastructures, etc.), lays up heavy debts for the future, with a landscape that has been changed almost beyond recognition, if not indeed defaced like the area around the bobsleigh track in Cesana.

30However, the greatest effects lie in the more complex strategies of change that can be put into play. Many cities, once they have hosted a mega-event, are almost automatically induced to try to host others: however this is a strategy that calls for long and careful thought. For the city, the event brings a major increase in its fixed capital – consisting largely of large "container" buildings and infrastructures, though infrastructural implications have varied widely over the history of the Olympic Games (Essex and Chalkley, 1999). In addition to this, human capital and governance skills will also benefit, thanks to the organizational capacity that the complexity of the event will require the host city to develop, attracting international input to complement the abilities that the local area already has on hand. Concentrated in time and space, this "territorial capitalization" helps the territorial systems involved in the event loom larger on the competitive map, both at home and abroad. New markets open up, breaking new ground for urban and regional economic policy.

31For Torino, then, more mega-events would seem to be a must, justified by the success of the Olympics and the need to invest their ambiguous legacy with profit: in addition to the smaller-scale events that have already taken place or are currently scheduled (Torino as World Book Capital, along with Rome, in 2006, the 37th Chess Olympiad in 2006, the 2007 World Winter University Games, the 23rd Architects World Congress in 2008), Torino now has the space and image to make such long-standing events as the Salone del Libro book fair or Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre food exhibition bigger and better, to plan other major events such as the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification (Torino 2011), and to be a permanent contender on the international winter sports circuits, as it attempted to do with the decision to bid for the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships, for example.

32The re-territorialization process can also consist in many categories of territorializing acts. But for extensive rebuilding and dismantling operations, the main options lie not so much in reification as in nomination and, even better, in organization. Imagewise, Torino 2006 and the Olympic sites can continue to exist, and the adjectival "Olympic" gracing their names can become one of the stock gambits of the area’s image-building efforts and marketing strategies ("Ski the Olympic Valleys!"), as well as of more complex local identity pro-cesses.

33The Olympics, for Torino were not an end in themselves, but had a strategic purpose in bringing about the city’s renewal and regeneration, both materially and symbolically. The prospects were different for the upper Susa and Chisone valleys, that, though they hope to broaden the range of the attractions and eliminate their seasonal dependence, nevertheless saw the Games as an opportunity for change that sprang directly from their own local strengths.

34In post-Olympic re-territorialization, the aims in both cases become essentially productive, an endeavor to leverage the image and the enormous fixed and relational capital generated by the event. However, the costs of maintaining it are equally massive, not least because the very success of the event created very high expectations.

Concluding remarks

35This paper has wanted to put in evidence two orders of themes. From a theoretical point of view it has intended to propose an interpretative model, that considers mega-events territorialization in its material, symbolic and organizational aspects. In this perspective, on the empirical plan it has considered the production of the territorial capital related with Winter Olympics Turin 2006, through a qualitative approach.

36Whereas the Olympics called chiefly for material changes to the territory, changes achieved by mobilizing a diversified, broad-based human capital and innovative governance practices, the need now is to control this renewed territorial capital. And this is a question of taking action towards territorial organization. As regards the networks of actors involved and the procedures for ensuring their engagement and participation, the Olympic agenda, with its tight schedules and strict deadlines, played a decisive role. This resulted in robust procedures: robust, not so much because of a reliance only on ad hoc rule-making and tailor-made laws, but because they were sharply focused on the immediate goal – producing a successful event – which meant that actors, spaces, resources and strategies had to be selected quickly, in the short timespans dictated by the rigid Olympic protocol.

37Conversely, managing the Olympic legacy and the processes that convert it into territorial capital, will call for procedures that are less robust, less exclusive and more willing to give a hearing to the many different public and private actors that can potentially be brought on board, where the context territory re-emerges in the foreground, no longer tied down to one exceptional mega-event. Nevertheless, it is precisely from the effectiveness of these procedures, from how well they reflect a strategic vision of the territory (and, in particular, the strong bond that will be forged between Torino and the Alps), and from the consistency with which all of the actors will be able to work together, that the outcome of the post-Olympic re-territorialization process and the long-term success of Torino’s Olympic moment will depend.

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1  The Olympics, world soccer championships and the Papal Jubilee can be considered all global megaevents, as they involve millions of spectators through the various media (Roche, 2000; Crivello, Dansero, Mela, 2006). Concerning the peculiarity of WOGs among mega-events see: Chappelet, 2002; Mela, Crivello, De Leonardis, Dansero, 2006; and the monographic number of the Revue de Géographie Alpine, n. 3, 1991. For a deeper discussion about the link between mega-events and space (territory, environment) and the related debate we refer to Dansero, De Leonardis, Mela, 2006.

2  This paper stems from the studies of the Torino 2006 WOGs and their possible legacy conducted by the authors as part of the OMERO Group (Olympics and Mega Events Research Observatory), an interdepartmental research center of the Università di Torino (

3  TOROC: Organizing Committee for the Torino 2006 Olympic Games. For a map of the actors in the Olympic territory, see Dansero (2002). The legislation covering procedures, resources and roles is, as mentioned earlier, set forth in Law 285/2000. This law specified the program for Olympic construction, established the Agenzia Torino 2006 to manage infrastructure work, construction sites and publicly funded contracts, and required that a Strategic Environmental Assessment be conducted for the Olympic program.

4  For a discussion of the negotiated consensus-building and planning instruments introduced in Italy during the Nineties to promote or support local development, see Governa and Salone (2004).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Torino 2006: a map of the Olympic territory.
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Table 1. The territorialization cycle
Crédits Dansero, De Leonardis, 2006.
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
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Référence papier

Egidio Dansero et Alfredo Mela, « Olympic territorialization », Revue de Géographie Alpine | Journal of Alpine Research, 95-3 | 2007, 16-26.

Référence électronique

Egidio Dansero et Alfredo Mela, « Olympic territorialization », Revue de Géographie Alpine | Journal of Alpine Research [En ligne], 95-3 | 2007, mis en ligne le 03 mars 2009, consulté le 19 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rga.281

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Egidio Dansero

Université de Turin, OMERO (Olympics and Mega Events Research Observatory), Professeur de géographie politique et économique.

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Alfredo Mela

Politecnico de Turin, OMERO (Olympics and Mega Events Research Observatory), Professeur de sociologie urbaine et environnementale.

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