The Beijing Games are in the books, boycotts and protestations notwithstanding. For viewers — those few who watched — it was 17 days of soaring triumphs and crushing defeats, of medal-stand tears and post-event sob sessions. But for our Olympians, after 17 days of electronic monitoring, sketchy internet, rotgut quarantine meals, fake snow, no fans, weird judging decisions, the requisite doping scandal, and a snowboard hill built in the parking lot of an energy plant, they’re probably simply happy to be out of Beijing and back on native soil.
Now that the onslaught of vitriol against the 2022 Games is abating — the thing is over, after all; we can’t do much about it now — it’s time for the commentariat to wring its hands and ponder whether such an enormous event is worth all the fuss.
Scrapping the Olympics altogether has always been a cause of some on the hard left. The event triggers so many bêtes noires — hosting it is enormously pricey, it’s commercial, it’s uber-big business, it’s environmentally unfriendly, it’s (shudder!) nationalistic. And if there’s ever a rerun of Beijing 2022, they might get their wish. Holding the games in another repressive, paranoid surveillance state might constitute an extinction event for the Olympic movement.
Nobody denies that the movement has problems. Hosting the games is an economic gamble of the first order. One study posits that every games since 1960 has come in over budget, at an average of 172 percent in real terms. Montreal 1976 is the poster city of budget overruns — it came in at 13 times its projected cost and required 30 years to pay off. Cost overruns since have been staggering: Rio 2016, 352 percent; Sochi 2014, 289 percent; London 2012, 76 percent. The games have proved a boon to a few cities — Los Angeles turned a $215 million operating surplus from the 1984 games, Pyeongchang reaped $55 million from the 2018 Winter Games, and the 1992 Summer Games put Barcelona on the tourist map — but in most recent cases, they become a financial boondoggle.
So onerous is the financial commitment to host a games that cities that formerly rushed into bidding wars for the honor are now running away from them. One of the reasons Beijing got the 2022 Games in the first place — the utter profligacy of the International Olympic Committee awarding the games to a repressive regime aside — is that all the Western bidders opted out. In the grand tradition of Denver 1976 — the first city to say no to hosting — Oslo, Munich, Stockholm, and Krakow, all under pressure from voters, pulled out of the bidding. Left standing were Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan; we would have been watching skiers carving up real snow in eastern Kazakhstan if it weren’t for four votes; Beijing won by a 44–40 tally.
The number of cities bidding for the Summer Games has shrunk precipitously since 12 put in a play for the 2004 Games. Five bid for the 2024 Summer Games, and when Rome, Hamburg, and Budapest pulled out, the IOC decided to award each of the two left standing with games of their own — Paris got 2024, and Los Angeles 2028. Fearful of nobody bidding for the 2032 Games, the IOC cleared a path for Brisbane to be the only bid.
Much of this rush for the exits can be laid at the feet of the IOC bidding process. Cities must ante up $50-$100 million just to get in the game — to submit a bid. To catch the eye and gain the blessing of the IOC, these cities submit overinflated bids — pushed frequently by the local hospitality and construction businesses. Constructing permanent venues for events, upgrading existing facilities to meet IOC specifications, constructing an Olympic Village for the athletes, building all sorts of new infrastructure — roads, train lines, hotels, etc. — nearly always plunge the host city into a deep financial hole.
Some of those permanent venues turn into white elephants once the games are over. Stadiums, bobsled runs, beach volleyball courts, swimming pools, and a host of other facilities sit rusting and abandoned in former host cities like Sarajevo, Athens, and even Berlin (from 1936). Rio, which hosted the 2016 Games, has provided inarguable testimony for not hosting.
In the corruption department, the palms of IOC officials are as greasy as those of the lords of international soccer (awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar? Seriously?). Suspicion of bribery swirled around the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, and IOC members were accused of accepting bribes pushing the Salt Lake City bid for the 2002 Winter Games. In 2021, the head of the Brazilian contingent received a 30-year-plus prison sentence for buying votes for Rio for the 2016 Games.
Most outrageous, though, are the fat cats of the IOC, awash in perks and payola, looking out for No. 1. Oslo, for example, a natural host city with a rich winter sports history and Olympic-quality venues already constructed, dropped out of the running for the 2022 Winter Games, according to one account, “after Norwegian journalists revealed that the IOC had issued a mind-boggling list of demands, including private traffic lanes for the IOC members, a private audience with the Norwegian King, and hotel minibars stocked with Coca-Cola products (the company is an Olympic sponsor).” London, which got the 2012 Summer Games, had to put IOC members up in five-star hotels and provide them with a fleet of limos and even cordon off roads for their private use, whose traffic lights were to turn green at their approach.
The problems are immense, no doubt about it, the costs enormous and the return on investment uncertain, and yet … and yet … we’re talking about the Olympics here. It’s a once-a-quadrennium event, the grandest, greatest, most high-profile gathering of athletes in the world. It’s the biggest stage in the world under the brightest lights in the world. The drama, the spectacle, the emotional buttons it pushes, the nationalistic pride it engenders — there is simply nothing like it on this planet. It is the premier sporting event. It makes heroes out of tumblers and skaters and skiers and swimmers and runners and jumpers and boxers, and it pumps into those viewing it warm memories that last a lifetime.
Who doesn’t have a favorite moment from Olympiads past? Mine occurred at Tokyo in 1964 when an obscure Oglala Lakota named Billy Mills drifted out to the fourth lane in the homestretch of the 10,000-meter run and kicked past long-distance icon Ron Clarke and Muhammed Gammoudi to capture Olympic gold, beating his personal record by almost 50 seconds. I still get shivers when I see the race on YouTube and hear a commentator in the background, during the last 20 meters, shouting, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!”
Others might remember Wilma Rudolph capturing three golds in 1960. Or Bob Beamon soaring a foot and a half farther than anyone had ever long-jumped before in Mexico City. Or Eric Heiden’s five speed-skating medals in five events in 1980. Or Michael Phelps touching out to win one of his 23 Olympic gold medals. Or Nancy Kerrigan winning silver (it should have been gold) in 1994 at Lillehammer. Or Michael Johnson’s dominating 200- and 400-meter victories at Atlanta 1996. Or, also in 1996, Kerri Strug, after pulling ligaments on her first vault, sticking the landing in her brave second vault and securing the U.S.’s first-ever gold in Olympic gymnastics competition. Or the “Miracle on Ice.” Or Dick Fosbury, Dave Wottle, Dorothy Hamill, Frank Shorter, Carl Lewis, Bode Miller, Edwin Moses, Mary Lou Retton, Simone Biles, or Mark Spitz. We know these names and treasure these memories because of one event only: the Olympics.
The fact that the number of cities bidding to host the games has dried up in recent years may be one of the best things to happen to the games. As long as potential hosts in the West put the question to the people, the opprobrious costs of hosting will most likely keep such cities to a minimum, if not dry them up altogether. This leaves cities in dictatorships, in repressive, communistic countries, places where the people don’t have a say, as the only option for the games. Nobody seems to want that.
The Olympics needs major reforms to stay viable. And pundits are quick to suggest them. Some want the IOC bidding process to be made more affordable by reducing the cost of bidding. Also, they urge the IOC to loosen requirements for venues, allowing more already-standing structures to be used for Olympic events, and to ease up on infrastructure demands.
Selecting a permanent site, or rotating among previously used Olympic cities, would cut way down on new venue construction and make hosting more economically attractive. Los Angeles, for example, a city that has hosted summer olympiads in 1932 and 1984, is licking its lips in anticipation of making a $100 million profit from the 2028 Games.
The IOC is allowing Brisbane far more latitude than earlier host cities for its 2032 Games. Fewer new venues, temporary venues, smaller athletes’ accommodations, venues hosting more than one sport — all are being permitted Brisbane. Events will be spread to nearby communities as well.
Other remedies include decentralizing the games geographically and sequentially. Events held in different places, on different time schedules, would eliminate almost all current problems, at the cost, however, of eliminating opening and closing ceremonies and the sense of grandness that makes the Olympics sui generis. A harbinger of this may come at Paris 2024, where an Olympic surfing competition is scheduled to be held in Tahiti.
Everyone outside of China probably agrees that the 2022 Games in Beijing were a travesty. The games can never again be awarded to a repressive state.
But it’s the world’s best track meet, the world’s best swim meet, the world’s best gymnastics competition, and the world’s best boxing tournament. It’s a once-a-quadrennium event in which millions the world round invest emotionally via television and media. Its survival is paramount.
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