If the excitement and anticipation that you normally feel during the days leading up to the Summer Olympic Games, which kick off this week in Rio de Janeiro, has been replaced with anxiety and dread, you’re not alone.
Nightmare waiting to happen. Slowly unfolding disaster. Calamity. Crime-plagued, Zika-ridden hellscape.
Make no mistake, Rio, the first South American host city in Olympic history, is stunningly beautiful and culturally vibrant. But the veritable carnival of complications that continue to dominate the international headlines — political unrest, violence, traffic, smog, uninhabitable accommodations, forcefully displaced residents and last but not least, fetid, bacteria-laden water — in the months, weeks and days leading up to the 2016 Summer Games haven’t exactly done wonders for tourism in Brazil’s second most populous city.
Some athletes, namely American rower Megan Kalmoe, would rather not hear another word about the crime, the corruption and the poop. She’s chastised the media for allowing “messages of negativity” to steal the spotlight from the athletes themselves. Kalmoe doesn’t want your pity. She doesn’t care about your concerns of comfort and safety. She wants positivity. She wants to win.
Still, it’s hard not to feel for the 10,500-plus athletes from more than 200 nations, many of whom have dedicated nearly every waking moment of their lives for a shot at Olympic gold. After all, in the eyes of the media, they’re no longer just competing against each other but with a host city where the emphasis has been — and, sadly, will likely continue to be — on infrastructure-related shortcomings and viral diseases. But hey, at least there’s capybaras.
Keep in mind that despite all the doom and gloom that led up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (much of it justifiably centered around political corruption and human rights concerns), the games progressed largely without incident save for Bob Costas’ conjunctivitis. It was a similar story in Athens in 2004 — the fretting largely subsided as the attention shifted to the incredible feats of athleticism on display.
Track, field, billion dollar overruns
While the 2016 Summer Games could also very well go off without a hitch despite all the panicked noise, Rio has, once again, resurrected an aggressive call for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ditch the tradition of selecting cities to host a 16-day-long mega-event with million — even billion — dollar overruns that decades to pay off. It took Montreal, dubbed as the "poster child of financial calamity by the New York Times, the better part of three decades to pay off the $1.6 billion price tag attached to the 1976 Summer Olympics.
As detailed in a recent study released by Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, all modern Olympic Games have come in over budget, roughly half of them exceeding their budget by over 100 percent. As of early July, Rio, a city in the midst of a crippling recession and public health crisis, was on track to go $1.6 billion over budget, a figure that will have likely ballooned when the games conclude.
The average sports-related cost for a city to host the Olympics over the past decade has been $8.9 billion — a huge honor with an even huger price tag. The most expensive Summer Games to date was London 2012 ($15 billion) and the most expensive Winter Games was Sochi 2014 ($22 billion.)
“For a city and country to host the games is a huge undertaking and one of the most costly and financially risky mega-projects they can undertake,” notes the study’s lead researcher, Bent Flyvbjerg.
Although there are host cities lined up through 2022 when Beijing will become the first city in history to serve as the backdrop for both the winter and summer Olympic Games (Los Angeles is currently vying against Rome, Paris and Budapest to host the Summer Games for a third time in 2024), one does have to wonder why?
Despite all the history-making attention, the bountiful merchandising opportunities, the legacy, why would a city actively want to take on such a high-risk endeavor? Why would a city, like Rio, that can’t afford to host in the first put in a bid?
The answer to that, of course, is complicated. But to many, the solution is rather straightforward:
Why not completely do away with the host city selection process, a process deemed by Bloomberg as a "perverse form of auction," and erect — or better yet, repurpose — two permanent, dedicated Olympic venues in two different cities? Or how about a single permanent venue that could feasibly host both the winter and summer games and be used for smaller sporting and cultural events in the interim?
After all, holding massive, once-a-year sporting event in the same location instead of moving it around isn’t all that rare. It has worked well for tennis — and it also worked well for the ancient Olympic Games, which were held in the same exact spot every four years on Greece’s Peloponnese for hundreds of years beginning in 776 B.C. Why not apply this model to large-scale biennial and quadrennial events?
Sure, the prestige and multicultural appeal of a globetrotting games would be all but lost along with the glory of competing — and winning — in one’s home country. But when looking at the pros and cons of the Olympics host city model, a model increasingly associated with corruption and financial ruin, the argument for a permanent home for the Olympics becomes stronger.
Bringing the Olympics back home
Writing for the Washington Post, Paul Glastris makes a persuasive case against the IOC’s continued insistence on selecting rotating host cities, some of which have hosted multiple games including Athens, Los Angeles, Paris, Innsbruck and London. (It wasn't until the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, that the IOC broke from the tradition of selecting two different cities, sometimes, but rarely in the same country, to host both the winter and summer games during the same year).
Noting that there’s “nothing sacred about this policy,” Glastris refers to the tradition of selecting revolving Olympic host cities as “a prize that nations covet and compete for almost as hard as their athletes do in the Games themselves.”
However, as Glastris details, that prize, prestige be damned, has transitioned into more of a burden than anything else.
The hard-earned expertise a city derives from hosting the Games — the knowledge its planners, contractors, technicians, security officials and armies of volunteers gain on the job — can’t be put to use again in the same way if that city won’t be hosting another Olympics four years later. Instead, another city gets to make the same rookie mistakes.
The current Olympic site selection system has become so obviously ridiculous that countries that might otherwise like to host the Games are thinking twice about bidding. Two years ago, Norway pulled out of contention for the 2022 Winter Olympics because of the expense as well as revelations about the entitled demands of the IOC — including specially designated highway lanes for IOC members. Last July, despite efforts by the IOC to help host cities reduce costs, Boston dropped its bid to be the site of the 2024 Summer Olympics after a state-financed report concluded that the only sure way for a city not to lose massive amounts of money would be for the Games to return to that city every four years.
So then, what city does Glastris think would make for an appropriate perma-Olympic home?
While he doesn’t mention an ideal permanent Winter Games locale, Glastris notes that Athens, is the “obvious choice” for the Summer Games.
Glastris singles out the city’s “historic charm” and the fact that it operated a “well-run” 2004 Olympics (despite essentially ushering in a still-lingering financial crisis in doing so) as two major reasons for its appeal. Plus, the city, the birthplace of the modern Olympics, is home to numerous stadiums and venues that are now sitting largely idle — buildings that could feasibly be dusted off and reused for future games. Athens also heavily invested in major infrastructure projects in advance of 2004's Summer Games including a new international airport, light rail system and roadways.
What’s more, Glastris notes that establishing a permanent Olympics site in Athens would help to pump additional tourism money into Greece and help it pay off its formidable debt. Perched at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, Greece is also about as centrally located as you can get.
Glastris isn’t the only one who has recently proposed bringing the Olympics back home to Greece for good as a means of helping Greece emerge once and for all from its economic shackles while preventing other cities and countries from wading into similarly perilous financial waters.
At this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Kitty Boone, vice president and executive director of public programs of the Aspen Institute, presented the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde with a theoretical that would “help Greece and help the world find a place in Europe that is a legitimate home for the Olympic Games.” Legarde responded positively to Boone’s “out of the box” idea.
Greece or bust?
Calls for a permanent Olympic venue in Greece have existed long before Rio.
Following the inaugural modern (read: non-Zeus-honoring) Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens, Greece was enthusiastic about hosting again in 1900 and potentially beyond. King George I of Greece fought to keep the games, a resounding success attended by athletes from over a dozen countries competing in 43 listed events, in Athens.
But, alas, the event's organizer, an aristocratic French historian named Pierre de Coubertin, could not be swayed. The second Olympic Games would take place in Paris, as initially planned, as part of the 1900 World's Fair, a trend that would repeat at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis. Both the 1900 and 1904 Summer Olympics were largely overshadowed by their respective World's Fairs. The Olympics did not return to Greece for 108 years (not counting the 1906 Intercalated Games, a now non-recognized intermediate event held in Athens.)
The idea was again pondered in 1980 when Greece offered to dedicate a 1,250-acre site as a permanent home for the games in the wake of the controversial — and heavily boycotted — Summer Olympics in Moscow. The idea was revisited when the Soviet Union and its allies counter-boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A.
More recent suggestions for bringing the Olympics back to Greece have involved converting an unpopulated island into an enduring home for the games. The island would operate as a sort of independent city-state overseen by the United Nations.
As envisioned by John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explained to CityLab in 2013, an Olympics-dedicated island "could be an ongoing experiment in sustainability and architecture, with facilities upgraded and new ideas tested, and with far fewer of the social or environmental costs than in existing cities. It could also standardize the sporting element, providing a stable setting and climate against which to benchmark athletic performances over time."
Even cities like Boston that have dropped out of the host city bidding process due to financial concerns and backlash from its own residents, believe a lasting return to Greece to be a smart idea.
Despite falling into economic collapse shortly after hosting the $11 billion 2004 Summer Olympics, Greece is viewed by many as the ideal permanent home for the games. After all, it has history on its side. (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
In a cheeky but spot-on letter to Angela Merkel published in 2015, Boston Globe writer Farah Stockman implores the German Chancellor to resist bailing out Greece and instead “convince the powers that be” to establish a proper forever home for the Olympics in Athens.
I know what you’re thinking, Angela: Athens already hosted the Summer Olympics in 2004. It spent $16 billion — and bought a new subway system — just before the economy collapsed. But that means it already has an Olympic training pool. All it has to do is clean out the brown scum that’s floating in it. And there’s already a beach volleyball stadium. Think of all the jobs that will be created from scrubbing the graffiti off it!
Of course, something will inevitably be lost if we stop moving the Olympics to a new city every four years: Namely, the International Olympic Committee’s dream of achieving world domination by covering the entire surface of the earth with aging sports facilities. How is China supposed to express itself as a rising power if not by building a glorious 80,000 seat stadium that will one day rent Segways to tourists? How are International Olympic Committee members supposed to pay for their plastic surgery and their kid’s college tuition, if not through the generosity of cities jockeying to host the games?
Even if the IOC is eventually pressured to abandon the host city selection process (a move that likely will never happen but still can’t be ruled out completely), this doesn’t necessarily mean member countries can’t host the games in a static location thousands of miles from home. For example, if all Summer Games were to be held in Greece as has been widely suggested, they could still be themed around and presented by rotating sponsor countries. This, in turn, would allow for member nations that could never afford to host on their own turf to bask in the home country glory for once. People host parties in other people’s houses all the time, you know?
What do you think? Do you think establishing a permanent home for the Olympics, preferably in a city with existing infrastructure and facilities, is as “clearly practical” as Glastris argues it is? If so, which city or country would you like to see host the Summer Games or the Winter Games — or both? (My fantasy permanent Olympics host city would be Vancouver although turmoil-immune Switzerland, which hasn't hosted since 1948, seems a shoo-in for the Winter Games.)
Or do you think, despite the huge financial strains placed on host cities, that the Olympics should continue as a nomadic, pop-up mega-project?