Boston revealed Monday afternoon that it had withdrawn itself from consideration to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. The announcement came hours after mayor Marty Walsh said he wouldn’t sign any contracts that left local taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns, which are virtually guaranteed to balloon anytime anyone hosts a global sporting mega-event.
At first glance, his words may have seemed like a relatively minor act of populist defiance. Yet Boston’s thanks-but-no-thanks actually reveals something much deeper. No one wants to host the Olympics anymore — nor should they.
There are, of course, success stories — Barcelona in 1992 is seen a win for all involved, for example. But for illustrations of why the Olympics have become radioactive for most prospective hosts, one need only look at the recent past.
Surely you haven’t forgotten Sochi last year, when journalists and athletes stepped into a chaotic construction scene just days ahead of the Games. The most expensive Olympics in history cost more than $50 billion to pull off, enriching a small minority as the rest of the country’s economy languishes. Just eight months after the closing ceremony, Sochi was described as a “ghost town.”
Or let’s look back 10 years before Sochi, to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Greece spent $10 billion to host those Games. Today, Greece’s economy is in tatters. Could these two things somehow be related?
Well, back in 2012 — before the economic situation in Greece spiraled to true crisis level — Bloomberg ran a piece explaining just “how the 2004 Olympics triggered Greece’s decline.”
Meanwhile, there’s perhaps no more perfectly bleak symbol linking the Greece of today back to 2004 than Athens’ abandoned, decaying Olympic venues.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for groveling before the International Olympic Committee in order to gain hosting rights.
Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia, Brazil, is now a $550 million bus parking lot
Prospective hosts like Boston are second-guessing and examining mega-events more closely, thanks to lessons learned via both World Cups and, Stateside, domestic professional teams.
Time and again, we see host countries bullied by FIFA or the IOC into overextending themselves. Figuratively speaking, the hosts’ eager mouths end up writing checks their bodies can’t cash without self-inflicting major corporeal harm.
Brazil built shining new World Cup stadiums to show off last summer; this one in the Amazon jungle was a particular head-scratcher. In the nation’s capital of Brasilia, a $550 million stadium was erected; it’s now reportedly being used as a bus parking lot.
Domestically, we see the owners of pro sports teams repeatedly conning local governments into using public money to build and maintain stadiums for their teams.
These are the kinds of compromises Boston looked at — then decided it wasn’t willing to make.
Boston, Brazil, Athens, Sochi … taken together, they prompt one question above all.
Maybe we can see the future of Olympics hosting by looking back at the most recent Games, in the current “ghost town” of Sochi.
Between cost overruns, construction under-runs, the repression of homosexuals, the suppression of political activists and the festering conflict in Ukraine, the 2014 Games in Russia are seen as a farcical botch by most observers.
One man who might disagree, however, is Vladimir Putin. Corruption allegations dogged the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, but anyone who thinks Putin and his cronies didn’t benefit from this alleged corruption is naive. Meanwhile, for all their problems, the Games themselves allowed Putin to rally national pride and present Russia as a country now validated globally as being among the world’s elite.
This week, which began with Boston’s bailout, will end Friday with an IOC vote determining who gets to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. But here’s the thing: Practically no one wants that dubious honor.
Stockholm, Munich and Krakow all flirted with it — then declined to make hosting bids over the past 18 months or so. Friday’s selection now comes down to Beijing — which hosted an Olympic Games less than 10 years ago — and Almaty, Kazakhstan. (Kazahkstan!)
What do China and Kazakhstan have in common? Both have reason to seek the world’s spotlight for the Olympics’ two-week run. Both also have autocratic political systems ripe for a select few to take advantage, of at the expense of the many.
That’s what this is all about, really — the human costs and trade-offs associated with hosting the Olympics. And in non-democratic countries, human costs often get short shrift.
If the Olympics — meant to symbolize and concentrate all that is good about humankind — become nothing more than a vehicle for despots and dictators to line their pockets while further tightening the clamps on their citizens, then we’ve failed.
The Olympic bidding process as we know it is crumbling. But maybe — just maybe — there’s another option that makes sense for everyone.
Sandra Jones of Old Cleeve, Somerset, England, isn’t the only one to think it might be time for Olympics to make a permanent return to their original home. But her recent letter to the editors of The Telegraph, embedded below, does skillfully articulate many arguments for doing so.
Moving the Olympics back to Greece would neuter some of the IOC’s power and eliminate the need for host countries to spend millions on infrastructure doomed to decay. There are more benefits, too, and some drawbacks — nothing is a perfect solution here. But the Greek option could even help settle a score.
When civic leaders look for reasons not to bid for Olympic hosting rights, Athens is a prime example. There’s the decaying stadiums, the $10 billion price tag and the line that connects the 2004 Games to Greece’s current crisis.
But bringing the Olympics back home could revive those stadiums. It could help the Greek economy limp toward recovery, and send a clear message that one of the world’s greatest sporting spectacles is more than a tool for dictators and connected contractors to consolidate wealth and power.
Instead of a warning sign for other potential Olympic hosts, Greece could become a symbol of reclamation — of a time that human beings decided that common sense and decency deserve to win over greed and excess.
Now that would truly be in the Olympic spirit. Read more…