Photo by Ivan NIcholow.
Sports / Olympics

We Need a New System for Hosting the Olympics

In 1908, London hosted the fourth modern Olympic Games. The Olympics took place over the course of more than six months, and although the Games went smoothly, the buildup  was more than a little chaotic. Four cities had placed bids to host, and Rome, the selected winner, was making preparations. On April 7, 1906, however, disaster hit: Mount Vesuvius erupted. In the wake of the volcano eruption, funds had to be moved to repair the city of Naples and the games had to be moved to London. The city had just two years to prepare. The London Games, rather unintentionally, set many precedents for the future of the Olympics, especially with the behind-the-scenes disorganization of the planning process. But since then, hosting the Olympics has become even more complex, and is now more so than ever a competitive, costly, and often unrewarding process. Given the many challenges that host cities face, therefore, it is worth considering how this process can be conducted differently.

Paying for the Games is a challenge for any city, regardless of economic wealth, and oftentimes, the aftermath of the Olympics has a devastating effect on the host country. Cities cannot rely on boosting tourism, because the results are mixed. After hosting in 1992, Barcelona jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 on the list of most-visited European cities, but cities like London and Beijing actually decreased in popularity after hosting the Olympics. Since hosting the Olympics does not necessarily increase tourism in the host country, the high cost of hosting the Games comes with few benefits. Although the first few Modern Olympic Games did not face major funding issues, according to the Council for Foreign relations, “every Olympics since 1960 has seen major cost overruns.” In particular, Montreal spent billions more than the expected $124 million when the city hosted the 1976 Games, and, as a result, spent three decades in debt. Similarly, the 2004 Olympics, held in Athens, went so poorly that some scholars believe hosting the Games may have contributed to Greece’s financial crisis, which began in 2009.

The most recent Summer Games, hosted by Rio de Janeiro in 2016, were widely viewed to be an economic and social failure, and showed the world just why the Olympic system needs reforming. The nation was in the midst of a terrible recession, and still reeling from political upheaval following the removal of President Dilma Rousseff. On top of these problems, Rio de Janeiro had to build almost entirely new infrastructure for the event; the city could not use existing buildings and arenas. Another issue was the city’s polluted water, which raised concerns about the health of the Olympic athletes. All these problems made the Games so expensive that Brazil’s federal government had to loan the city roughly $900 million just thirty-six days before the Games. Since the 2016 Olympics, many of the facilities have sat untouched, a reminder of the taxing ordeal. Rio de Janeiro was certainly not equipped to host an event of this scale, especially at this time in its history. In the end, Rio de Janeiro and other cities like it show that the Olympics have become a burden, and there is now a need for a new system.

However, hosting the Olympics is not always a bad decision; a few cities have actually seen economic and social benefits. The only city in modern Olympic history to profit economically after hosting was Los Angeles in 1984. Los Angeles was able to use many existing stadiums, and this advantage, coupled with a spike in television revenues, made it possible for the city to actually end up with a $215 million surplus. The social gains of hosting the games have been just as powerful as economic gains for some cities. Following London’s 2012 Summer Games, the city repurposed arenas into public parks and “football” (soccer) stadiums, and turned the Olympic Village into housing. Additionally, while preparing for the games, London invested in improving public transport, and these improvements are proving to have long-lasting benefits for the city’s inhabitants. Despite hitting some speed bumps along the way–there was not as much housing as originally promised–London was able to convert structures built for the Games into infrastructure that supported the city well beyond the closing ceremony. So there are instances of positive results–but they are few and far between.

Enough countries have faced problems as a result of hosting the games that it is necessary to at least modify the existing system, if not scrap it altogether. Two major ideas would be to create a single host city or to have a set of host cities, in order to decrease the costs and increase the benefits of hosting. The first solution–having a permanent Olympic host–would mean that there would be just one Olympic village, one impeccable public transportation system, and one set of venues to be used consistently every four years. The obvious drawback to this solution, however, is that the patriotism and excitement that comes with hosting only belongs to one host city. Who would be the permanent host? How would this city bid for the position, and why should that city deserve the honor? At the same time, why should that city have to bear the brunt of the cost year after year, even if the cost is significantly lower than before? One idea could be to have Athens host every year, bringing the Games back to its Greek roots, but will Greece be in a better place economically and politically in ten years, after the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics? Another concern would be dealing with the Winter Olympics, because few cities could host both the Winter and the Summer Games. (Of course, Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008 and is set to host the Winter Games in 2022, but this city is the exception, not the rule.) There is a solution that addresses the issue of national pride: why not have several cities simultaneously host the Games? This way, many different countries would both enjoy hosting and cover the costs of the Olympics, and the venues would be used consistently every four years. Again, there would still be the question of who would get to host what events. There would also be many more logistical challenges, from managing media coverage of the event to transportation. If the Games were spread across the globe, would the event as a whole be permanently changed, since it would no longer be one cohesive event with opening and closing ceremonies? Despite these challenges, however, this solution seems to be the simplest one.

All in all, the days of hosting the Olympics for the sake of nationalism are long gone. Few countries can afford to invest in the Games without sacrificing something else, and the tourism boost is often short-lived, not lasting far beyond the Games themselves. Cities are picking up on this, and interest in hosting the Games is much lower than it has been in the past. In recent years, when placing bids for 2020, 2022, and 2024, several cities decided to pull out, with Boston’s mayor declaring that he “refuse[d] to mortgage the future of the city away.” For the first time, the International Olympic Committee decided in 2017 to choose the hosts for 2024 and 2028 simultaneously, due to the lack of bids: the Games will be in Paris in 2024 and then in Los Angeles four years later, because these were the only two cities that stayed in the running to host the Games in 2024. Given that there is currently no one set to host beyond 2028, maybe then, ten years down the line, we can start planning for a new vision of the Olympics, a version for the modern era. What is clear is that a change needs to happen, and it has to be one that is cheaper and easier while still embodying the patriotic spirit of the event that it is today.