The Olympic spirit animates cities as well as athletes. I was thinking about this when I gave a keynote at a recent Milan Investment conference moderated by Il Sole.
A great athlete is exposed to sport early on, focuses internally, suffers adversity, welcomes challenges by others, adapts, competes, and eventually prevails. The Olympic champion draws from the shared experience of athletic ancestors, and in turn expresses and passes on the Olympic spirit to others, even beyond the athletic events themselves. The shared experience represents kinship, collective memory, and an exhortation to improve in all aspects of life.
Cities can also embody the Olympic spirit.
Milan was among the first western cities to experience COVID-19. In early April, when other places still had relatively few cases, Northern Italy and Milan already had over 10,000 deaths. The situation was chaotic; institutions and civil society scrambled to adjust, with no generally agreed best-way-forward, every part of the society improvised as best as it could.
Soon enough, wherever we lived, we were all caught up with our own pandemic worlds. I remember learning about the exemplary Milan experience – the social and personal sacrifices, and the particular nature of its perseverance. And in many ways, we adapted our own responses to the leading example of Milan. I managed to travel to Italy several times over the summer, after re-openings and before succeeding lockdowns; I was moved by an animating spirit that I hadn’t noticed before – beyond survival and complacency; a hunger and a commitment to urban regeneration.
In June 2019, Milan–Cortina d'Ampezzo beat another joint bid from Swedish cities Stockholm–Åre to become hosts for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. This will be the fourth Olympic Games hosted in Italy and the first hosted in Milan. The International Olympic Committee allowed a longer distance between events, so that alpine skiing can be held in a mountain area, and indoor sports such as ice hockey and figure skating can be held in a large city more than 160 km (100 mi) away, where such arenas are already available or have greater usage after the games.
Milan is preparing existing facilities and adapting brownfield sites like San Siro Stadium, Santa Giulia for the ice hockey, and the dismissed railway yards of Porta Romana for new functions like the Athletes’ Village. The urban conversations turn not just to the few weeks of athletic events, but to the legacy of regeneration – new city quarters around Porta Romana will become cultural extensions of the Prada Foundation, transit-oriented mixed-use residential and commercial development, student housing close to some of Milan’s leading universities.
Milan is learning from the regeneration experience of other cities, and infusing its own initiatives with agendas of its own. It is starting to breath like a champion, a city that isn’t content to be fixed within Italy, but to also attract, connect, and inspire beyond its borders.
Milan’s Covid Spirit is becoming an Olympic Spirit.
image: New York Times April 2020
image: Il Sole