Olympics for All

I’m just watching documentaries on French TV about the White Elephants (basically the infrastructures that will stay after the Games and will be used by anybody). And that’s a real scandal in today’s economics. The 2016’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will (probably) not be a disaster. But avoiding catastrophe isn’t the same as achieving success: Contrary to the bold claims about economic development that accompany any mega-event, hosting the Olympics is almost always a financial disaster for cities in the long term, and Rio won’t be the exception. Indeed, economists are uncommonly unanimous that hosting the Olympics is a bad bet. “The math just doesn’t make sense,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College whose book ‘Circus Maximus’ argued that even bidding on the Olympics makes cities a victim of a scandal-plagued International Olympics Committee. “They cost between $10 billion and $20 billion and generate in the range of $4 billion to $5 billion,” he says. But there’s a clear solution to this financial trap, one that would plant the games squarely in the age of streaming television and instantaneous global communication: We should split the whole thing up. Only two cities have ever made hosting the Olympics work for them: Los Angeles and Barcelona, both of which mostly used existing venues instead of building new ones. And that, most sports economists agree, is the key to success. Consider Beijing. The Bird’s Nest, the Ai Weiwei-designed stadium that hosted the opening ceremony and the track and field events, costs $11 million a year in upkeep. The Water Cube, where swimmer Michael Phelps broke seven world records, now houses a water park but still requires $1.5 million in annual subsidies. Overall, the 2008 games cost China about $40 billion and are thought to have brought in a mere $170 million. Or look at Athens. Greece was in economic trouble before the 2004 games, and spending almost $11 billion on stadiums and facilities helped push it into full-on crisis. As a fix, Zimbalist and other observers have suggested that the same city host the games every four years. But this plan has faults: limiting the chance to host to the Londons and the Beijings of the world is anti-Olympic in spirit. Indeed, 30 of the 49 occasions of an event that purports to represent the globe have been held in Europe. Rio will be the first South American host city in the 120-year history of the modern games. Africa has never had an Olympics. Under the permanent-host plan, it never would.

Olympics

But if we did away with the notion of one host city altogether, it might. Send beach volleyball to Rio permanently, where there are actual beaches. Hold the fencing competition in Italy, where many of its gold medalists are born. Move swimming to Australia, where it’s a nationwide obsession. Host soccer in South Africa, where the 2010 World Cup was a moment of national pride. Let each country bear the cost of one set of events at a time instead of dozens. Despite potential objections that the plan undemocratically violates the spirit of bringing athletes of the world together, it actually promotes a greater sense of equality. A one-sport, one-city policy would mitigate the ongoing wasteful bid process, which takes years and can require $100 million worth of research alone. Indeed, those costs and a dwindling appetite for hosting the games have combined to reduce the number of cities bidding in the first place. The IOC would have to adapt to a new world where it doesn’t dole out a crown jewel every four years—but given how few cities actually want the Games, the distributed plan might be just the adaptation it needs. Furthermore, permanent homes for events would prevent everyday life in any one city from grinding to a halt during the games, a major factor in Bostonians’ outraged response to that city’s now-terminated bid.

 

Most important, it would extend the Olympic spirit to people who would otherwise never get a chance to attend the greatest athletic competition on earth. We already have the technology necessary to split up the games. As more people stream events on demand instead of relying on a network’s primetime broadcast, location and time zone matter less. (The networks will monetize this somehow, eventually.) CBS sends crews to 13 different cities every year for the early rounds of March Madness; NBC could easily cover 20 or so cities every four years. Amanda Lotz, who researches the economics of television at the University of Michigan, says online streaming has been wildly successful for CBS and hasn’t caused a drop in the TV audience. “People want to be able to view more events at the same time,” she says. “Bob Costas could be in one city that nobody else is in and seem like he’s in the middle of it all.”

Imagine the party in Nairobi if the Olympic marathon were run in Kenya, which is home to many of the best distance runners in history but where residents have never had a chance to see their record-setting countrymen in elite competition. Most of humanity doesn’t live in a nation wealthy enough to take a $10 billion loss on a two-week competition. Giving them the chance to witness the Olympics firsthand would finally make the games a truly global event.

(article partly edited in Wired, 2016)

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