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When no one wants to host the Olympics, can a radical remodel work?

Athens, Greece, 31 October 2017. The Olympic flame is handed to organisers of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics during a ceremony in the Panathenaic Stadium Athens, Greece, 31 October 2017. The Olympic flame is handed to organisers of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics during a ceremony in the Panathenaic Stadium
05 Aug
2021
Overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo games, the Olympics have been quietly undergoing big changes. But not everyone is convinced that a bright future awaits
With an honourable mention to the FIFA World Cup, there is no sporting event like the Olympic Games when it comes to capturing the world’s attention. On top of more than six million ticket sales, a record 350,000 hours of coverage were broadcast during the 2016 Summer Games, when backstrokers, archers and rhythmic gymnasts competed in the shadow of Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor. Half the global population tuned in to watch some part of the Games, if official ratings are to be believed. And all of these eyeballs translate into considerable commercial revenue. 

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Yet interest in hosting this global event has become increasingly lukewarm. With city halls losing interest in the ‘honour’ of hosting future Olympics, bidding processes are increasingly failing to attract the high-profile names that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would wish for, with some cities very publicly withdrawing their bids. The IOC’s decision to assign both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games to Paris and Los Angeles respectively as early as 2017 was widely accepted to be a reaction to these withdrawals; by locking in a decade’s worth of events, the IOC could at least postpone the possibility of the unthinkable: that nobody would volunteer to host the Olympic Games.

It’s a long way from 2005 and the tense, dramatic day that saw London narrowly defeat Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow to host the 2012 Games, amid scenes of jubilation. Why have many of the world’s cities turned against the Olympics? Beyond the logistical headaches caused by Covid-19, what obstacles does the event need to overcome and how might this be achieved?

shutterstock 179077916Athens, Greece, 31 October 2017. The Olympic flame is handed to organisers of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics during a ceremony in the Panathenaic Stadium

BUSTING BUDGETS

The headline financial figures for recent Olympics make for sober reading. University of Oxford researchers calculated the cost of Games held between 1960 and 2016. For the 19 events for which reliable data were available, every single Olympics in this period ran over budget (even when counting sports-related costs only and not including the construction of additional city infrastructure). The Summer Games ran over budget by an average of 213 per cent; the average overrun for the Winter Games was 142 per cent. 

‘I would say it’s a fairly recent phenomenon,’ says lead author Bent Flyvbjerg, chair of major programme management at Said Business School, University of Oxford. ‘If you go further back, there are Olympics that were so inexpensive – it was just a few million originally – that it wouldn’t have been a big deal, financially. And you still got a huge boost in terms of PR and attention around the world.’

Recent Olympics are certainly accelerating the high-cost trend. The 2012 Summer Games in London cost £9.3 billion (US$15 billion), an overrun of 76 per cent. Four years later, the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro cost US$13.7 billion, more than three-and-a-half times the sum initially budgeted. Between those events was the phenomenally expensive 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, with a final bill of US$21.9 billion. This made it by far the most expensive Olympics to ever take place, more than all the previous Winter Olympics put together (with the addition of infrastructure costs, the final bill has been estimated at more than US$50 billion). 

Flyvbjerg believes that there are six critical factors for why Olympic Games since 1960 have a 100 per cent failure rate at staying under budget. These include: the decision to host the Olympics is almost impossible to reverse, regardless of how much costs rise; there is no flexibility in the timetable – it must be completed at the scheduled time; there is no flexibility in the scale of the final product (with no room for say, shrinking the size of facilities to save money); the seven-to-ten-year timeframes in which these facilities are constructed are long enough that unpredictable events such as economic downturns are increasingly likely to occur; and almost every city approaches the challenge as a newcomer, with minimal past experience to draw upon for the vast logistical challenge that lies ahead.

However, Flyvbjerg believes that the most important reason is that the financial goals of the IOC and the respective host cities aren’t aligned, with the additional costs falling almost entirely upon the host city, meaning the IOC has no incentive to make hosting the Games less expensive. ‘You and I don’t get to go out and pick a house and have somebody else pay for it,’ he explains. ‘Here, the IOC and the athletics organisations are deciding what to build and what to do, and someone else is paying for the lion’s share of what it costs to do that. That is very atypical and very unhealthy.’

The IOC, of course, disputes this. When approached for comment, Christophe Dubi, IOC Olympic Games executive director, rejected the methodology and validity of data used by the Oxford study, arguing that it ‘takes a fundamentally flawed and inconsistent approach’. He was especially critical of the costs of sports infrastructure being included as part of the overall cost of hosting the Games, which he insists should instead be seen as a long-term investment in the city, not serving ‘only the four weeks of Olympic Games competition’. He also rejected criticisms of the IOC’s finances, pointing out that many national sports federations are dependent on IOC funding and on the Olympic Solidarity budget. He added that environmental and social requirements are ‘at the heart of what we do’. 

BUILD, BUILD, BUILD

Traditionally, one compelling reason for cities to bid for the Olympics was the opportunity to invest in new infrastructure. As well as shiny new stadiums and swimming pools, being an Olympic host is an excuse to spend large sums of money on new housing and commercial districts, roads and subways, and hotels and entertainment facilities. With a deadline to meet and the world watching, domestic delays can be swept aside and public purses more easily opened. As former London mayor Ken Livingstone said in 2008: ‘I didn’t bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get billions of pounds out of the government to develop the East End [where the Games were predominantly held], to clean the soil, put in the infrastructure and build the housing’.

‘The London Olympics were seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop a whole area in one go,’ explains Stephen Essex, associate professor of geography at the University of Plymouth. ‘Without the Olympics, that probably wouldn’t have happened. You would have had a more piecemeal regeneration over a longer time period, which wouldn’t necessarily all connect up.’

Not all Olympic infrastructure is part of such visionary regeneration. There are monuments to wasteful Olympic spending scattered all over the world. Perhaps most famous from recent years are the crumbling, overgrown baseball stadium, dried-up canoe slalom and other decrepit facilities in Athens, although similar scenes have been documented in Sarajevo, Atlanta and Turin.

shutterstock 1629820351The Olympic rings are lit in Tokyo on 24 January 2020 in front of the Rainbow Bridge

‘I think there has been a realisation that the Olympics can be quite a wasteful project,’ says Essex. ‘Obviously, the built environment for the event itself is to accommodate large numbers of spectators and that isn’t necessarily what you need for a vibrant, mixed-use living community. So it’s about having a long-term vision, which enables you to fill in some of those gaps with new neighbourhoods and new housing.’

He compliments events such as the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, which created the Olympiapark München, a space that still functions as a large city park, with accompanying leisure facilities and an international football stadium. The flipside of this is the Olympic Park created for the 2000 Sydney Games. ‘There was all that investment in the transport infrastructure to the Olympic Park, but when I went there a few years ago, there wasn’t really anything to see,’ says Essex. ‘I think that’s slowly beginning to change. In more recent years, they’ve undertaken a lot more development: office-based industry, a university campus and housing.’

Of course, for every Sydney or Athens, where redevelopment came as an afterthought (if it came at all), there’s a Barcelona 1992, where radical regeneration was baked in from the beginning. ‘Barcelona had a plan,’ explains Flyvbjerg. ‘They deliberately decided it wasn’t about the Olympics; they were just using the Olympics as a starting point for a huge urban-renewal project that was going to take 20 years to do... and they did that.’ 

While Stephen Essex argues that this Barcelona narrative is something of a myth – that the city’s transformation was due to many other factors, such as Spain’s joining of the EU – the arrival of the Olympic Games certainly played a key role. ‘It changed the perception of Barcelona itself,’ he says, ‘from a grey industrial city that turned its back on the water, to one that’s a European capital of culture.’

FOLLOW THE MONEY

For many critics of the Olympic movement, this focus on infrastructure, whether in London, Barcelona or elsewhere, is itself a central problem with the Games. Displacement and gentrification are what this event is really about, they claim – just another way to push people out of their homes and create space for developers to move in. Livingstone’s claim that bidding for the Olympics wasn’t about sport at all now sounds like an admission that the entire enterprise was all about money.

‘If we think about the various attempts to open East London to real estate development, the Olympics was the only thing that was able to do it,’ says Christopher Gaffney, clinical associate professor at New York University. ‘It becomes this patriotic quest. Those who are pursuing it have these vested interests – and it tends to be real estate first, but then also security, tourism and all the other businesses that are part and parcel of the Olympic coalition.’ 

Gaffney argues that the entire Olympic movement is at heart a practice of financial extraction, that these mega-events enable wealth to be removed from host countries then taken ‘back to Switzerland and put in a piggy bank’, as he puts it. It’s the core argument of a rallying cry that has helped anti-Olympic organisers in cities around the world campaign against the hosting of the Games in their backyards, all paid for with their tax receipts. Communication between protesters in bidding (or potentially bidding) cities appears to be on the increase.

shutterstock 785442694Barcelona is thought to have done very well out of its hosting of the games in 1992

‘I’ve been to Tokyo to talk to people about how to organise against the Olympics,’ says Gaffney. ‘In the same way that the Olympics are international, you also have people who are seeking out information from others about how they managed to overturn bids. Hamburg [at one stage bidding to host the 2024 Summer Games] was very successful because they brought in a lot of international people with experience to talk about it.’

One of Gaffney’s recent projects draws parallels between Rio de Janeiro, Olympic host city in 2016, and Puerto Rico, an island still dealing with the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. ‘A hurricane is an event you can plan for, more or less, but it’s a disaster; you don’t know when it’s coming,’ he says. ‘The Olympics are an intentional disaster. And they have similar outcomes. You have this state of emergency, so you have to rule by emergency decree – that’s true in both the hurricane and the Olympics. You have a lot of external contractors coming in. You have a lot of economic leakage from the regeneration money. You have to either destroy or rebuild infrastructure very quickly, so you then overbuild or misbuild. And there’s also a narrative of either preparation or recovery that dominates public consciousness for almost the same amount of time – seven years to recover from a hurricane, seven years to prepare for the Olympics. I think it makes sense to call the Olympics a planned disaster.’

POWER IMBALANCE

Any examination of how to ensure a positive future for the Olympic movement has to start with a look at the IOC itself. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, it’s the grand overseer of each and every Summer, Winter and Youth Games. While technically a not-for-profit organisation, it nevertheless makes considerable revenues, predominantly from selling broadcast rights, but also from various marketing opportunities and other revenue streams that emerge from Olympic events. Between 2013 and 2016 (a period that covers Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016), the IOC pocketed a handsome US$5.7 billion, according to the latest financial statement. It’s a substantial budget and immense power, within relatively few hands. 

‘Private companies don’t get to dominate a market 100 per cent like the Olympics do,’ says Flyvbjerg. ‘I consider the IOC a monopoly and I think it should be regulated as such. But because it’s an NGO, you can’t regulate it, according to what I’ve heard. I actually think that this is something to think about – that in a way, the IOC is hiding under the umbrella of being an NGO.’

The IOC reports that 90 per cent of its revenues were reinvested straight into funding future Olympic Games and assisting athlete development globally, with ten per cent retained for IOC operations. ‘It does give a lot of money to sports, which I’m sure is doing a lot of good,’ continues Flyvbjerg. ‘But still, it’s also a business, very much. And that part of its actions, I believe, should get more attention and possibly be regulated.’

At least prior to the past decade or so, being an Olympic host city has been a prestigious and desirable state of affairs. This gave the IOC considerable power and influence over cities that aspired to become hosts, with mayors and world leaders fighting to get its attention. ‘Until very recently, the power relationship has been almost all located with the IOC,’ explains Mark James, professor of sports law at Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘What it has been able to do then is effectively, as part of the host city contract, force the host nation to pass legislation on its behalf, covering a huge range of issues. So it’s quite a powerful position that the IOC is in, to effectively have law created on its behalf by the host nation.’ These laws cover everything from prohibiting guerrilla marketing and ticket touts to establishing various tax exemptions and special car lanes for athletes and Olympic officials. 

Yet this power hasn’t been leveraged as much as some would like. ‘The IOC very much goes out of its way to protect its commercial rights, but does very little in respect of anything else,’ continues James. ‘It claims within its fundamental principles of Olympism to have environmental and human rights standards as central to its agenda. Yet absolutely no environmental impact assessments are required when building the facilities.’ He highlights examples such as the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where tens of thousands of trees were reportedly felled to enable the construction of a new ski slope, despite the opposition of local environmentalists. ‘The human rights issue is changing – they are making the hosts undertake human rights impact assessments – and it will start to kick in for Paris 2024,’ he adds. ‘But it means that they have been able to host it in China without pricking their conscience too much.’ 

Dubi of the IOC points out that all Olympic Games will be required to be ‘climate positive’ from 2030 and that the IOC is working on creating a human rights unit within the organisation.

GOLD MEDAL PERFORMANCE

In 2014, the IOC introduced a grand new vision entitled ‘Agenda 2020’. The slogan: ‘Change or be changed’. It contained a wide range of reforms, including new funding for various anti-doping schemes, introducing more opportunities for female athletes and launching a 24/7 TV channel, to keep broadcasting even when the Olympic flame has long since been extinguished.

Perhaps the most significant change, especially for anyone who remembers the dramatic moment in Singapore in 2005 when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, has been the reform of the bidding process. Now, instead of pouring millions into glossy videos and competing to see who can wheel out the biggest celebrity, a slower, more measured system of invitations is being introduced, in the hope of producing cheaper, more flexible bids and events that leave a positive legacy. 

Known as the ‘New Norm’, the idea is that the IOC will establish a preferred bidding city early on, then work alongside the organisers as part of a joint steering committee to ensure that the Games fit into the long-term vision for the city. ‘So, rather than having a bunch of requirements imposed from above,’ explains Sven Daniel Wolfe, an urban and political geographer at the University of Lausanne, ‘you have more of a discussion, and co-designing, instead of having to invent every Games from the ground up, which is both wasteful and costly, and not terribly intelligent’.

shutterstock 549346867The opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro

Paris 2024 and LA 2028 both hint at how these changes might manifest themselves on the ground. Both events will significantly use existing infrastructure, with multiple sports sharing the same venues. Paris reports that 95 per cent of its facilities already exist, or will be temporary. The IOC also highlights how one of the snowboarding facilities for Beijing 2022 will become a large mixed-use development of housing, offices and leisure facilities after the Games.

In the Agenda 2020 closing report, released earlier this year, the IOC reviewed its own performance with regard to its many goals and awarded itself an 88 per cent ‘achieved’ rating. In the report, Thomas Bach, IOC president, wrote: ‘With Olympic Agenda 2020, we have changed the Olympic Movement, leading it on a path of progress and making it fit for the future.’ 

‘The discourse coming through those documents is very much, “We changed how the Olympics are delivered, problem solved, job done”,’ says Wolfe. ‘And I don’t think that’s true. I think the IOC really did put forth a fair and decent rethink of how the Games are deployed and tried to change the relationship between the IOC and host cities, rather than imposing the Games under a very strict structure onto a host city. Fundamentally, the idea I think, is a good one. The question, of course, is will that actually result in any substantive changes for residents? I’ve not seen any positive changes yet. We might see fewer white elephant stadiums after the Olympics, but so far, we’re seeing the same marginalisation of oppressed groups.’

The group NOlympics LA, for example, continues to oppose the 2028 Games, combining its anti-gentrification campaign with criticism of Airbnb and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It calls the Los Angeles bid undemocratic, claiming it will result in the militarisation and destruction of local communities, with significant tax dollars still required to upgrade existing facilities. 

‘I don’t think there’s any room within the hardware system of the Olympics for change,’ says Gaffney. ‘They’re trying to change the software, from time to time, but the updates are insufficient to change the damage that the system is organised to produce.’

A GOOD OLYMPICS?

Perhaps the current format is simply out of date. Perhaps the event should only return to cities with existing infrastructure, or be dispersed across more than one city, as we’ll see when the 2026 Winter Games is split between Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, 160 miles apart. In short, without the billion-dollar construction deals and social controversy, could there be a sport-focused ‘good Olympics’?

‘No, I don’t think it’s possible,’ says Gaffney. ‘That doesn’t make a lot of money for anybody. That goes against the fundamental business model: the extraction, the accumulation, the creative destruction, the new stadium constructors. They have this whole ecosystem of Games nomads who roam around the world via intercontinental flights, and all of that ecosystem would have to dissolve.’ He argues that, since most Olympic sports have individual world championships anyway, removing the grand symbolism of the ceremonies and other paraphernalia would eradicate any value in Olympic competition itself.

Sven Daniel Wolfe is less pessimistic. ‘A good Olympics to me would be something where that power of connection and national display, the spirit of togetherness, fellowship and peace, would be maintained.’ He proposes more of a cultural sharing event, separating the ‘host’ of the Olympics from the city where it’s geographically held, rotating between a set number of cities with the necessary facilities. An Olympics officially hosted by, for example, Malawi, but held in, say, Sydney. ‘It has potential to still hold some of the cultural power, but not destroy a country with new and unnecessary infrastructure,’ he argues.

The IOC continues to talk about change and reform, sustainability and credibility. Agenda 2020 has been followed by the recently adopted Agenda 2020+5, a new five-year platform focused on ‘solidarity’, ‘digitalisation’, and ‘resilience’ in a post-pandemic world. Wolfe isn’t convinced that such rhetoric is enough to result in the necessary transformation required to solve the IOC’s ongoing issues. ‘I think what we need to see is some really visionary thinking coming from Lausanne, and whether or not Thomas Bach and the rest of the executives there are capable of that is something that I’m not sure of.’

The IOC operates on long timeframes, so many reforms from Agenda 2020 have yet to show any substantial impact – and possibly won’t for years to come. Earlier this year, Brisbane, Australia, was named as the IOC’s preferred bidder for Summer 2032, ahead of rivals such as Doha and Budapest. It’s the first time the new collaborative bidding mechanism has truly been put to the test. The next decade will reveal to what extent this is an improvement on the past. 

‘I would say that I’m rather in the minority of critical mega-events research, in the sense that I actually am still, I think, naive enough to admit or believe in the fact that these are really fun events,’ continues Wolfe. ‘I cry at opening ceremonies and I think there’s a huge emotive power in that national–international context. I think that it has the potential to be a beautiful coming together of different nations under the banner of peace, just like they say in the propaganda. I hope this is the beginning of substantial improvements, but I need to see more evidence before I start getting my hopes up because, unfortunately, the power of greed is such that maybe as soon as things go back to normal, we’ll go back to those grand entrances on the world stage for a middle-income country that’s going to spend three years worth of GDP on infrastructure that will never get used. My hope is that we never see that again.’

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