The latest round of Olympic bidding has highlighted what has been known for ages: that hosting the Games is a BAD IDEA.
Paris and LA have been awarded the 2024 and 2028 events. No other cities were in the running, after several, including Rome, Boston and Hamburg dropped out.
The Winter Games bidding for 2022 was a similarly feeble contest, with Almaty and Beijing the last two standing. Beijing – a city with no snow – won.
Why has the Olympics become so toxic?
The main reason is cost. Who can sell the idea of spending anything from $10bn – $50bn to a population that is feeling the pinch? Even populist dictators might baulk at the expense.
But costs are OK if there are benefits. Clearly, the benefits have been exposed as a bit of a con. Soft power? There are cheaper ways. Tourism? It actually drops. Infrastructure boost? Do it anyway, if it’s worth it. Happy population? Not necessarily.
So what would be a better way of hosting the Games? Here are a few ideas that are frequently put forward, and my thoughts on their strengths.
Idea #1: pare it down
The Olympics is too big as it is. If you want to make hosting affordable, get rid of sports that don’t need to be there. Football, tennis, golf – there are bigger prizes in those sports. Politically tricky, but doable.
Problem is, that still leaves a lot of events, and in any case, the main costs always seems to be the centrepiece athletics stadium, the athletes village, and the infrastructure. Cutting out a few events won’t help here.
Idea #2: joint cities
This has a certain appeal. Joint city hosting would spread the cost, surely? Not quite. The only example of joint hosting of a recent major event is the World Cup of 2002 between Korea and Japan. That was not a great success, with both countries building expensive stadiums and infrastructure. Rather than splitting the cost, it merely added to it.
For the Olympics, it would present a tricky branding challenge – every Games is “City year” eg London 2012. I guess you could have Rome-Madrid 2036 or whatever, but it’s less appealing. The city backdrop is part of the experience – think Rio’s beach or Sydney harbour. While the World Cup hops from stadium to stadium, an Olympics has a ‘village’ and a base. Two bases would be odd.
Further, where do you have the opening and closing ceremonies? The 100m final? It would be fine to divvy up some events, but the location of the showpiece athletics would naturally make the Games forever associated with that host, not the other.
Idea #3: spread far and wide
An Olympics with events around the globe sounds inclusive and idealistic, but it would have all the problems of idea #2 and more. One of the main ideas is that spectators can visit the city and see a range of sports, not just one. There would be no cohesive experience which would annoy lots of fans. Broadcasters would hate it – it would be far more expensive and hard to cover.
The experience of the Euro 2020 will be interesting in this regard – it’s taking part in 12 cities. If it somehow works (big if), spreading the Olympics *might* become an idea that takes off. Unlikely.
Idea #4: permanent hosts
Some have suggested a single permanent Summer and Winter host. I think that’s a bad idea, for several reasons. One, monotony. Two – it places quite a burden on the host city. Instead, the IOC should pick five cities that rotate the Games. Each would represent their continent, and the IOC would be have the extra incentive to invest some of the broadcast revenue in keeping the infrastructure maintained.
This has a lot of appeal – theoretically no more white elephant stadiums, crumbling facilities or overspending.
There are downsides: with a gap of 20 years, it’s possible that things fall apart anyway. The Olympic roster changes, which means new facilities would always be needed; stadiums will still be unused (or underused) for two decades.
However, picking the right hosts would mitigate those downsides. Cities that are big enough to cope with the set-aside of facilities could easily be found – London, Tokyo, LA would be great candidates.
The downside is regional jealousy. China would want to be a permanent host, for sure. As would the US. That might annoy Canada or Japan. But given that there is a dearth of cities with the current system, it might be a better plan.
The other positives to a permanent city plan is that it would kill off the expensive bidding process, which also would stop the bribery and backhanders. The IOC would have to reform from a princely tour of spoilt delegates to a proper administrative commission – a far better outcome. Cities would have far longer to plan, meaning cost overruns should be a thing of the past, or at least less likely. Hosts wouldn’t have to cut corners to get the Games ready. In any case, it would be a question of upgrading facilities, not a rush job of building from scratch in 7 years.
The benefit of putting on an Olympics is pretty small. Tourism suffers, rather than getting a boost. Countries that want to boost their profile have any other number of ways to do it – host a world championships, finance a Grand Prix, host an expo or something. The Olympics is too big to be used as a political tool anyway.
The other upside of permanent hosts is that it is also closer to the original Olympic ethos, which was to have the Games in the same location each time. Evolving that into five Olympic hosts – one for each of the rings, which could be a nice marketing touch – makes sense.
Anyway. Don’t hold your breath.