by Glen Hamilton
The Olympic Torch arrived in Rio de Janeiro today and the first events began as well. So the media will soon tip from reporting on Rio’s apocalypse to finding candidates to be put on a Wheaties Box. But right now the current wisdom is that any city that hosts the Olympic Games is insane and doomed to decades of misery. While very much a critic of the Olympic Movement, Dave Zirin is normally one of the most astute observers of the intersection of sport and society. In an L. A. Times Op-Ed Zirin suggests that Los Angeles should drop its 2024 Olympic bid in order to force the Olympic movement reform its host selection process in a way that addresses human rights and corruption. This is a very worthy goal. But a boycott by candidate cities is not an effective tool of reform and Zirin’s solution of moving to a single location is completely unworkable.
In order for a boycott to succeed, a high level of compliance is crucial. Countries with the necessary level of political activism to thwart an Olympic bid are the same countries where the most egregious corruption and social dislocation could effectively be called out. The main by product of a boycott would be heavier dependence on hosts that would be more likely to suppress opposition, degrade the environment, and bulldoze a city’s urban fabric. I went the Olympics in London in 2012. I can assure you they are every bit as special as people say they are. So cities are going to sign up to host them, and those that win bids will love them.
One thing no community would love is to host multiple games. Hosting a single Olympics is exhausting. Any city would be pretty jaded around half-way through the second go-round. Managing that many people and events at different locations is no small feat, and the cost savings won’t be as dramatic as they are made out to be. Many Olympic facilities are renewable now. Building from scratch could end up being more expensive in many cases. For example, the water polo stadium where I watched the US play Serbia was shipped to Rio and has since been reassembled. Big ticket items like the main stadium, the aquatics facility, and transport infrastructure need upkeep. So they are not quite the slam dunks they first appear to be. The Athletes Village is a wash because using housing two weeks out every four years isn’t feasible. A new build every four is years is a big temptation, hence minimal savings.
I can’t predict what is going to happen at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2024, but it can’t possibly be as bad as the naysayers predict. The other day a caller on NPR’s To The Point radio show claimed the 2004 Olympics caused the Greek debt crisis of 2010 and would cause similar financial contagions in Brazil and California. Sure, the guy was a bit of a crank. But he was left mostly unchallenged by the moderator and guests on the show because that is the way thinking is going on this issue. Unfortunately, advocates for the Olympics used absurdly optimistic and frequently bogus financial figures to sell the games to the public, leaving themselves open to equally nonsensical critiques. This allowed reality and perspective to slowly slip away from both.
A change in the way that countries conduct business with the Olympic System is not as impossible as it seems. The politicians that launch a successful bid are rarely the same people who preside over them. So there will be political change; just what kind is up to voters. People need to vote and demand more transparency in the process. If successful, Los Angeles and the United States will have seven years to make this right. Transparency at the Olympics will work because so many people are watching.