In AD 111, Roman Emperor Trajan dispatched Pliny the Younger to the province of Bithynia, in modern-day Turkey, to deal with some serious cases of economic mismanagement in the construction of large building and infrastructure projects.  In the city of Nicaea he found a half-built theatre that needed to be demolished and rebuilt due to poor design and shoddy workmanship.  This tale serves to remind us that grand and wasteful infrastructure projects are not a recent phenomenon, and that establishing responsibility when major projects don’t go according to plan is much more challenging than finding those willing to take the plaudits for the successful ones.

The Quirk Review

After becoming the Premier of Queensland in December 2023, Steven Miles announced a short, 60-day review of the venue master plan for the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  As many athletes and officials will recognise, this ‘time out’ provided a very welcome pause and opportunity to tap into the wisdom and expertise of people at arm’s length from the government.

Chaired by former Brisbane Lord Mayor, Graham Quirk and supported by the highly experienced Ken Kanofski and Michelle Morris, the review will report on March 18 and is widely expected to propose some major alternatives to current venue proposals. In particular, the wholesale rebuilding of the Gabba stadium will come into sharp focus as a lightning rod for critics of the Games and its planning due in part to the proposed cost and lack of community consultation over the development and proposed demolition of historic East Brisbane State School.

Without prejudging the conclusions of the Quirk Review or joining the fierce political debates about the merits of the current plan for the Gabba, this episode illustrates vividly the challenges involved in planning and delivering a major, global sporting event such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Doing so in a sustainable manner while leaving a lasting legacy of widely acknowledged positive achievements and retaining sufficient support from the public at large should attract a medal in its own right.

Planning impact of The New Norm

Following the economically disastrous experiences of some previous host cities and amid increasing concern about the probity of the bidding process, several important critiques of the political economy of hosting the Games appeared.  For example: Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings’ 1992 expose of power, money and drugs in the modern Olympics; Helen Jefferson Lenskyj’s exploration of activism in her 2000 book, Inside the Olympic Industry; and John Rennie Short’s 2018 analysis of the real costs faced by cities hosting the Games all contributed to a growing feeling that change was needed.

In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already launched a major reassessment of all aspects of organising the Olympic Games from candidature to delivery and through to legacy, adding up in their words to ‘a fundamental rethink for future Olympic Games’.  The results of this review saw the endorsement of 118 reforms during the 132nd IOC Session held in PyeongChang in February 2018, with the whole package being known as The New Norm.  The overall objectives of this New Norm were to ‘simplify the candidature process and to create a Games which are more flexible, easier to operate and less expensive, whilst also unlocking more value for host cities over the long term.’ 

The revised candidature process has been designed to make it easier for cities and National Olympic Committees to assess their capacity to host the Games and to prepare plausible proposal packages, aligned to existing development plans, in conjunction with technical experts provided by the IOC.  This represents a significant and very welcome departure from previous bidding processes, such as Athens in 2004, that were both costly and susceptible to corruption and ultimately damaged the reputation and standing of the Games and host cities.

“The overall objectives of this New Norm were to ‘simplify the candidature process and to create a Games which are more flexible, easier to operate and less expensive, whilst also unlocking more value for host cities over the long term’.”
Beijing National Stadium "The Bird's Nest"
Beijing National Stadium “The Bird’s Nest” the main stadium for 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in 2012

From white elephants to a more sustainable legacy

The second major component of the New Norm relates to the legacy impacts of hosting the Games and ensuring these are positive rather than negative. This challenges hosts to deliver the Olympics by utilising/upgrading existing infrastructure leading to the need for fewer new venues and less Olympics-specific infrastructure overall. As a further shift, the use of temporary and flexible venues is encouraged together with the design of venues that can be shared by multiple sports.

The bodies charged with undertaking that planning and delivery have looked increasingly at investment in other infrastructure needed to support a successful event that also delivers a lasting legacy for the host city or region. In Brisbane and South-East Queensland, this has meant a focus on improving transport infrastructure so that athletes, officials and spectators can move easily to and from and between venues.  In recent years it has also seen an enhanced concern with providing additional accommodation that will contribute to solving or ameliorating the current housing crisis.  This too represents a positive development away from the tendency in the past to demolish housing, especially low-cost housing, in order to build new stadia.

” … using mainly existing facilities even if they need significant upgrading and avoiding major investment in stadiums that are unlikely to be used at capacity after the event have become the welcome new norm in Olympic planning.”

Having been involved in the much smaller scale Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, we can attest to the mixture of celebration and concern across the city and further afield about some aspects of the delivery of that major sporting event.  While its overall impact was judged to be positive and the delivery agency, GOLDOC, avoided investing in any new facilities that would come to be seen as ‘white elephants’, some local enterprises misjudged the extent to which local spending would be boosted and persistent calls to avoid congestion on the motorway between Brisbane and Gold Coast saw it devoid of motorists to an extent never seen before.

So, using mainly existing facilities even if they need significant upgrading and avoiding major investment in stadiums that are unlikely to be used at capacity after the event have become the welcome new norm in Olympic planning. This position was acknowledged in May 2021 in Brisbane’s final response to the IOC’s Future Host Commission (FHC) Questionnaire in which the Gabba was mooted for a “major upgrade”. By 2023, major upgrades had transitioned to demolition and complete rebuild with an accompanying project cost blowout to boot, a change that seemingly runs counter to the ethos of New Norm planning. It will be interesting to see if the Quirk Report recommendations bring venue planning for Brisbane 2032 back in line with this ethos to ensure that the remaining planning timeline is optimised to deliver a sustainable Games and leave a long-lasting and positive legacy for all Queenslanders.


Professor Paul Burton trained and worked as a town planner in London before joining the School for Advanced Urban Studies at the University of Bristol in 1980 to carry out research for his PhD on the redevelopment of London’s Docklands. Paul joined Griffith University in 2007 as Professor of Urban Management and Planning. He is currently a member of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University and an active member of the Planning Institute of Australia. He performed at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Professor Leonie Lockstone-Binney is Deputy Director of the Griffith Institute for Tourism (GIFT) and a Professor in the Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management at Griffith University, Australia. Leonie’s research expertise relates to volunteering, contextualised to event and tourism settings. Leonie has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles, many of these in top-tier journals. She has received competitive research funding from the Australian Research Council and the International Olympic Committee and continues to collaborate with leading researchers from Australia, the UK and New Zealand.

11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
UN Sustainable Development Goals 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities