It’s no secret that it’s a pricey pain to host the Olympic Games, running billions of dollars above the estimated budget. As the International Olympic Committee receives fewer bids with each problematic games, the future of the tradition is looking unsure. We spoke with Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, on the matter. He has written about the Olympic issues in the books “Circus Maximus,” “No Boston Olympics,” and “Rio 2016.”
Ah, the Olympics. The glory of our best athletes competing for greatness in shiny new stadiums before viewers around the world.
But recent games are rife with overspending, waste, and controversy. And most viewers don’t even see the lasting damage hosting the games does to the host city.
Could we be watching the death of the Olympics?
Well, right now it’s hard to tell, but this honored tradition is looking sicker every year.
Hosting is expensive. Every game in the last 50 years has gone over budget. The 2014 Sochi Winter Games went over its $10 billion budget by an additional $41 billion.
No one knows this better than professor Andrew Zimbalist. He’s written several books on the Olympics, including “Rio 2016: Olympic Myths, Hard Realities.”
“These days they require about 35 different athletic venues, they require an Olympic Village that could cost 1 1/2, 2, 3 billion dollars depending on the circumstance. They require a media and television production facility which could easily go for half a billion to a billion dollars. They require a media village. They require ceremonial space and green space. They require transportation amongst all of it and special lanes for the IOC executives, transportation amongst all of the venues.”
Cities used to make a profit from the games, partly, because they collected a lot of revenue in TV rights. But recently the International Olympic Committee has been taking larger percentages. In the ’90s, for instance, it took 4% of revenue. Compared that with the 70% it pocketed from the 2016 Rio Games.
The newly built stadia can cost up to $30 million a year to maintain, and they’re often on valuable real estate. Most cities don’t even know what to use them for after the games.
Those facilities fall into decay if they aren’t kept up. And that hurts property value.
“There could also be a lot of environmental destruction. The Winter Olympics they’ll be having in Pyeongchang, they destroyed a whole mountainside — trees and animals that are there and some of them close to extinction.”
So, who would want to host the Olympics in the first place?
Not many. After each financial failure, fewer cities bid to host the following decade’s games.
After all, it takes 10 years of planning just to be in the running to host. Chicago spent an estimated $100 million on the campaign to host in 2016. And they lost!
Boston famously pulled its bid for the 2024 Summer Games, after citizen group No Boston Olympics convinced the city otherwise.
Twelve cities bid for the 2004 games, five for 2020, and just two tried for the 2022 Winter games: China and Kazakhstan.
So is that it? “RIP Olympic Games”?
“It won’t end! Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, for all the criticisms that I have of him, he’s a smart guy, and he knows when he’s up against the wall, and they’ve been up against the wall.”
In 2014, IOC President Thomas Bach suggested a list of 40 actions the IOC could take to “shape the future of the Olympic Movement.”
Among them: Evaluate bid cities by assessing key opportunities and risks, reduce the cost of bidding, and include sustainability in all aspects of the Olympic Games. It sounds good on paper, but time will tell if these actions take root.
“… By doing that, by tweaking the model a little bit and making pronouncements, they reengage cities to participate. And what’s generally happened is the model has been slightly reformed — it’s a little bit more sensible now than it was before Agenda 2020.”
Zimbalist supports a different idea to keep the Olympics alive: Get rid of the bidding system and pick a permanent host. Somewhere that has the built-in facilities, infrastructure, and venues.
“We happen to have such a city for the Summer Olympics: It’s Los Angeles. They don’t have to do any building, virtually. They’ve got the infrastructure, transportation infrastructure, because it’s the second-largest city and the entertainment capital of the country — they’ve got all of the professional team from all the leagues.”
A permanent city could benefit the Winter Games as well. As the climate changes, less cities that have hosted Winter Games in the past can reliably keep snow.
The IOC isn’t a fan of the idea, but as bidding hosts dwindle so do their options.
The future Summer Games are planned out through 2028 and the Winter Games through 2022.
The 2026 Olympics have several cities exploring bids, including two previous hosts: Salt Lake City and Sapporo, Japan.
Germany, Australia, and India have all expressed interest in the 2032 Summer Games.
Despite its flaws, the Olympic Games is still a people-pleaser. The IOC polled candidate host cities for the 2020 Games, and 70% of Tokyo, 76% of Madrid, and 83% of Istanbul were in support.
So, maybe the Olympics aren’t dying, but it’s certainly up to the International Olympic Committee to keep the games in check. Both on the field and off.
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