Can The Olympics Be Saved? | Gradient

Can the Olympics be saved?

A little over a year ago, Boston’s Olympic NIMBYists triumphantly organized to keep the games out of their city. You can be disappointed that the event won’t return to American soil for at least another cycle and still find things to celebrate about this.

It’s unlikely the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will join you in searching for silver linings. More than half of all potential host cities — Stockholm, Davos, Barcelona, Quebec City, Munich — have dropped out of the running in recent years. (Here’s a great account from The Guardian.)

And why wouldn’t they? It’s the sanest move for a country to make. Hosting the Olympics isn’t a cheap feat, and it’s not pulled off by using existing infrastructure and the blessing of a financial fairy godmother. The Games are incredible undertakings, mandating enormous infrastructure investments and often require displacing thousands of people from their homes.

Further, at least for some countries, the spotlight that comes with hosting the games has brought upon its own share of unwelcome press. And it’s not just Rio. Sochi’s $50 billion price tag and Vladimir Putin’s anti-LGBT legislation chilled enthusiasm for the 2012 Winter Games.

Remember Tibetan and Chinese human rights’ abuse stories before the Beijing Games? Some suggested that blame for Greece’s financial collapse could be placed at the feet of the Athens’ 2004 Games. Even the London Games, a far less polemic site, brought about commentary skeptical of East London’s gentrification.

And this was before all the toxic press surrounding Rio’s Olympic preparations. It’s been a fairly unmitigated disaster, but in all reality, that’s nothing new. Preparation for the Olympics is usually an unmitigated disaster, and that disaster continues long after the athletes and journalists go home.

Are the Olympics doomed to stay in such straits? Is it possible for them to meet social, environmental and economic bottom lines? (Even two of those three strands would be welcome at this hour.) What might a financially sustainable, social justice-grounded Olympics look like? Who might have to give up what in order to change?


As part of hosting the Olympics, Rio had to construct a velodrome.

The indoor biking stadium wrapped up last month, coming in at the cool $44 million after months of complaints from the International Cycling Union. (Two practice races, scheduled for March and April, were canceled for lack of a facility. The company in charge of building just went bankrupt. Deadspin opined, “The Rio Olympics Velodrome Is Just Never Going To Get Built, Huh”)

“It’s certainly not ideal, but given the circumstances we’re very happy to have some practice this weekend,” Gilles Peruzzi, the UCI technical delegate told USA Today, after the track was — at long last — declared complete. While Peruzzi’s frustration is understandable, the IOC doesn’t award cities the Games with the idea that they will simply repurpose existing infrastructure, says Peter Berlin who has written about the Olympics for The New York Times and Politico.

“The Olympics are so expensive and the IOC members like it that way,” he said.

Why? Because Olympians want to feel special.

In the coming weeks, largely anonymous beach volleyball players, gymnasts, and swimmers will transform into household names. Those outside of primetime — fencers, shooters, and martial art athletes — will also receive a boost to their platform, upping their odds at landing sponsorship deals. But that’s not all: this transformation will largely occur while these athletes play their sports at state-of-the-art facilities and sports organizers enjoy luxury level accommodations. Oh, and the people running these sports get a host city vote. So if your sport isn’t something mainstream like soccer, basketball, tennis and golf, you’ve got to cash in on this once-every-four-years opportunity.

And since the stakes are higher, the IOC’s requests become greater.

“It’s one reason that, whatever the IOC says, the International Association of Athletics Federations [which governs Track & Field] will always vote for a brand new, purpose built stadium,” said Berlin. “That’s why they badly wanted London instead of Paris. Paris was going to reuse a stadium that had already hosted a soccer World Cup, London was going to build a new stadium that would be dedicated to athletics forever.”

In many ways, this YOLO-type mentality ends up pervading the entire games. But this is where the voices of local leaders need to step in, says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, the director of Sports Management Programs at George Washington University.

“No one is forcing these cities to bid,” she said. “It is always a local person who leads the charge. If a city does not have the means nor needs the Games to make change then they should not bid.”

But rather than focus on the Olympics as an end to the themselves, city leaders need to be consider how to use them to spur long term investment in the city.

“The cost of organizing the Games is covered by Olympic broadcast and sponsor money,” she said. “It is the cost of all the infrastructure (new roads, trains, hotels, and sport venues that will remain in the city for 30-plus years) that add up the costs.”

“If a city already has the infrastructure, the costs are not that high and should be amortized over 30 years, not 16 days of the Games like they try to do. If a city doesn’t have the facilities but believes the Games would be a good reason to get the redevelop compete and/or to build needed infrastructure then this is ok as it is part of a larger plan,” said Delpy Neirotti, noting East London as a recent example.

Not all hosts have done this, of course. In the case of Greece, organizers didn’t “write the building contracts to allow the sport facilities to be used for other purposes besides those that they were initially built,” said Delpy Neirotti.

In that sense, Rio’s actually in better shape, she says.

“Half of the Olympic park will be a private community where it will be turned over to the group who developed the park and the other half will be a Brazil Olympic Training Center,” said Delpy Neirotti. Brazil also didn’t build a super park, since the venues were spread out across the city, according to Delpy Neirotti.


As potential host cities have begun backing out in recent years, the IOC has increasingly found that their federal governments fall closer to authoritarian than democratic, on the governance spectrum.

“Democratic stakeholders —in Chicago, Norway and now, it seems, Rome — are beginning to vote against the games, which will increasingly leave the field open for less democratic countries,” said Berlin.

And the IOC deciding to boycott a site by its type of government goes against the spirit of the games, says Delpy Neirotti.

“The Games are supposed to bring people from around the world together in a peaceful gathering regardless of religion, race, or politics,” she said. “A dictator state is much easier to host a Games from the organization point of view as things will get done. But that is not always the best.”  

It also can’t pick sites strictly based on their economic situation: “The IOC can’t afford first-world bias,” said Berlin.

And even if it did take into account its current financial situation, it can’t predict the future. For all of Brazil’s current financial troubles, back when it was selected in 2009, it was a “growing, prosperous country,” said Delpy Neirotti. “But seven years is long.”

IOC voters also have little incentive to vet a city’s infrastructure.

“They know they will be in the best hotel and that the host will create special VIP lanes and lay on limos to ferry them to venues,” said Berlin. “As long as there is also good shopping and dining, that’s all the infrastructure you need.”

Could sponsors or advocacy groups pressure the IOC to change its selection policy? Berlin isn’t optimistic.

“There will only be changes if the IOC finds itself without host candidates,” he said.


Salt Lake City’s winter games may be one example of a success story. Tainted at the onset by an IOC bribing scandal (what large-scale athletic event would be complete without this?), a decade later the media reported on its effects.

For starters, “every venue used during the last Olympics …remains fully functional,” reported the AP in 2014. That’s not surprising, says Delpy Neirotti.

“In U.S. we also have a sophisticated sport systems from youth, collegiate and professional that are always seeking new facilities that will be used,” she said. “Our system is unique whereas other countries do not have the regular demand for large sport facilities.”

But organizers realized that, given the operating costs, demand alone would not keep the buildings open. To cover future shortfalls, they created a $76 million endowment to operate the Games’ two main complexes: the Olympic Oval and the Olympic Park.

Official state figures from 2002 came in positively too.

Salt Lake City also got a new utility system to replace its 150-year-old version, two more light rail lines and a freeway expansion, courtesy of the federal government. “I will confess, when I was campaigning hard for the light rail program in Salt Lake, I played the Olympic card shamelessly, and I think it was very helpful,” former US Senator Bob Bennett told the area’s public radio station in 2012.

One part of the four-part public radio report explored “how our image evolves,” serving as a reminder that most verdicts over the Games’ success will depend on the eye of the beholder.

“The claims that there is any measurable positive impact for the host from the Olympics is a lie, and even the most ardent apologists have stopped claiming it,” said Berlin.”The argument now is that it shows that the host city and country are open for international business and are big players. Indeed the level of expenditure and organization required may be part of the appeal because it shows the country is a big-time player.”

For the general public, “there can be a ‘feel-good’ factor, as there seems to have been in London, and probably in Russia when the hosts topped the medal count,” said Berlin. “Sydney enjoyed hosting the games, so did the Greeks, even though they were painfully aware that they were going to keep paying for it.”

The euphoria of the event may also come in tandem with quality of life improvements.

“I have been traveling to Brazil on a regular basis since 1988 and can tell you the country has definitely improved over this time,” says Delpy Neirotti. “The Olympic Games cannot be expected to clean up an entire sewer system that has polluted the city for hundreds of years, but the Games has made a step in the right direction.”

One example: Beijing. Hosting the Olympics led leaders to change an entire fleet of taxis and purchase natural gas buses, points out Delpy Neirotti. “Again, this could not completely stop all pollution, but did make an important difference.”

Then there’s the uncomfortable question behind the whole thing. Is arguing about the ethics just a first world exercise? Are we hoping that the IOC is doing the hard work so that the rest of the world won’t have to?  

“The potential host cities themselves need to refuse to take the Games on the current terms. And the IOC can object, as it did in Beijing, that if the host does not care about the freedom of speech of its citizens, then that’s not its business,” said Berlin. “If Rio is not interested in social justice for the inhabitants of the favelas, then there’s nothing the IOC can do, just as it can’t be expected to solve the problems of the slums in non-Olympic cities.”

And maybe some of this handwringing keeps us from seeing the larger point of the Games themselves, as American rower Megan Kalmoe recently hinted in an essay.

Everywhere I look, I read negative stories and op-eds – and the resulting comment threads (yikes) – that express outrage and disgust, disappointment and disapproval of the conditions that short-term visitors like athletes and spectators will be forced to endure for all of two weeks this summer while they participate in the Olympics.

They do not mention the countless Brazilian citizens who live their whole lives in Rio and don’t complain; they offer no solutions for their readership to pitch in and help to make things better for the visiting delegations they so pity (let alone long-term solutions for the population of Brazil!); all from the comfort of their figurative armchairs, the majority of these great thinkers and contributors having never been a part of the Olympic Movement, or themselves been to Rio. As a culture, could we possibly be more entitled, ignorant and embarrassingly egocentric?