By: Chris Warren.
What if you wanted a mortgage for a brand new, lavishly over-the-top house. Then you told the bank construction would not be completed for eight to ten years, but you could accurately calculate what the projected costs will be and insisted your figures were a valid basis for approving the loan? And let’s assume you don’t want to live in the house long term. You just want it for a few weeks to throw a huge party. When it’s over, you’re sort of pretty sure but not certain that possibly the place can be recycled into something that might be useful. Do you think the bank would back your plan?
If you think no one with half a working brain cell would ask for nor agree to such a ridiculous deal, you’re wrong. It happens every four years in the form of a city “winning” the right to host the Olympics. For decades the International Olympic Committee was always able to hustle several nations into competing with each other for the privilege of bankrolling the IOC’s multi-billion dollar, two week party.
This time around, the IOC’s big-buck ride is hitting a lot of bumps. Many of the cities that were initially interested in hosting the 2022 Winter games have dropped out because the huge amounts of money needed to pull off an Olympics can no longer be camouflaged with glowing promises and slippery accounting tricks. Ordinary citizens (correctly) smell a huge scam and are asking questions that bid committees don’t have acceptable answers for.
Poland, Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland bailed early. All would have been very qualified and culturally relevant hosts. When Oslo, Norway recently withdrew their application, the IOC made no effort to hide their near-disgust in a press release that reads a lot like the desperate last resort patter of a time share condo salesman when his fed up client is walking out:
“For a country of such means, full of so many successful athletes and so many fanatical winter sports fans, it is a pity that Oslo will miss out on this great opportunity to invest in its future and show the world what it has to offer.”
Aside from the veiled insult that Oslo needs the Olympics to prove it is a world-class city, what the IOC is too politically correct to say openly, and why they are having a hissy fit, is that Oslo was the only decent option left. The short list of remaining candidates is not very impressive and none have democratically elected governments. The Committee is very aware of the public image mine field of oppressive governments sponsoring the Olympics. The IOC’s pouting is a de facto admission that the Olympics need Oslo more than Oslo needs the Olympics. That’s a marathon run away from the days when the IOC played kingmaker by having cities aggressively bid against each other.
For this article, I spent some time researching to find out if previous years’ games ever delivered a long term payoff. A conclusive answer is almost impossible to determine because of varying definitions of “payoff”. What I did learn is that defenders of the Olympics will go through painfully circuitous and sometimes unintentionally funny explanations of why hosting the games was a good business decision. Only a former (and in many ways, still) communist state like Russia will say with complete sincerity that the $51 billion (US) they spent for Sochi 2014 was totally worth it while the place lays largely abandoned and falling apart.
I learned early in life that the longer and more complex an explanation is, the greater the odds are that what I am being told is complete bullshit. The freshest example of this is a sixty-seven page (and that’s just a summary!) analysis on the London 2012 games: The original estimated cost in 2005 when London won the bid was around £4 billion British pounds. The ending price tag in 2012 was about £9 billion. So even after spending more than double what they intended (which did not include the cost of converting the venues for public use when the games concluded), Great Britain has no shortage of people including Prime Minister David Cameron himself using far more words than a credible man should need to make the case that Britons got a bargain, never mind that the math behind the claims looks like it came out of a Monty Python comedy sketch.
Apologists’ heaviest selling point is that Olympic facilities can be used for civic purposes once the games are over. There are very few successful real-world examples, and even when it does work out, it’s only after a curious allocation of resources. The swimming & diving arena from the 2008 Beijing Olympics is now a kids’ water park and aquatic center. That’s very nice, but isn’t hundreds of millions of dollars kind of a lot to pay for a kiddie pool?
The fatal flaw in the post-Olympics “civic good” argument is that the leftover infrastructure either A: solves problems that do not exist (unless lack of a community access luge run is considered a legitimate problem); or B: where needs do exist, could have been solved more economically without the games. If a city decides it wants new roads or athletic facilities or public transit, they do not need the Olympics as a premise to build them. All these things can be accomplished for a lot less than what it takes to appease the IOC cartel.
With the price tag of throwing a quadrennial two-week sports festival now running into the many tens of billions and climbing, future Olympic host city proponents are going to be under intense pressure to come up with a sales pitch to the citizenry that goes far beyond patriotism and sparkling new tennis courts. For its part, the IOC will have to lower their regal expectations or risk being forced to do business with the likes of North Korea.
The Olympics has gone from a celebration of international goodwill to an escalating competition of one-upmanship to see which nation can best prostrate themselves before the IOC throne and pay the highest dowry. Brazil (2016), South Korea (2018) and Tokyo (2020) are already in the trap, but Oslo, Norway sees this great-honor-turned-farce for what it is, and they are not foolishly taking the bait. By refusing to play, they have already won.