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In Long Term, Radical Change Needed to Reduce Olympic Host Burden

The Olympic Flag. By Makaristos - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4787743

If the International Olympic Committee thought the bidding process changes in its Agenda 2020 reforms would end the negativity about being a host of the Summer or Winter Games, it has been sadly mistaken.

The frightening new financial projections about the cost of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games and Rome’s withdrawal from the 2024 race on financial grounds make it clear the IOC still has a long way to go in convincing citizens of democracies that being a host of the ever-more-bloated Olympic Games is worth the time, money and hassle.

The italicized passage above was the opening of my Friday column, which dealt with short- and long-term solutions to a mess so bad that six of the 10 official candidates to be host of the 2022 Winter Games and 2024 Summer Games withdrew after formalizing candidatures – and another, Boston, dropped out before filing its paperwork.

In the short term – for the 2024 vote coming next September – I borrowed an idea from my colleague Alan Abrahamson, who posited that the IOC should award the next two Summer Games at the same time, with Los Angeles getting 2024 and Paris 2028.

I suggested that the order makes no difference (click here for that column). The important thing is doubling down will give the IOC more time to sort out its future.

The long-term answer? Dramatic changes should be considered.

The Olympic host city system is based on the premise that moving the Games around the world is important in spreading the Olympic message (whatever that is.) That premise is utterly outdated in a world where communications advances have made spreading such messages an instantaneous and cheap process. Even in the host country, nearly everyone now is exposed to the Olympics through television, live streaming and social media, not direct contact.

So the time has come to think about rotating the Olympics among previous, recent hosts (eventually adding Africa, which should have a chance to be a host when it is ready for a strong bid.)

That presumes, of course, that a recent host wants to do it again and is able to keep facilities in workable condition over gaps between hosting of 20 years or more. No matter what, updating would cost a lot less than starting from scratch.

A regular rotation would do several things:

*Eliminate the cost of bidding, which can run to $100 million or more.

*Encourage recent hosts to maintain the facilities they have built, knowing they will be used again, rather than letting them molder, as Beijing (2008) and Athens (2004) have done.

*Establish a cycle that might make it cost effective for temporary facilities to be moved from one host to the next

*Reward those hosts, like Vancouver (2010), Salt Lake City (2002 Winter), Calgary (1988 Winter) and, yes, even Sochi (2014 Winter), that have already done an outstanding job of keeping their competition facilities in use (or are trying to do so) and would need to add relatively little to be a host again. Sydney (2000), London (2012), Beijing (2008) and Barcelona (1992) could presumably do the Summer Games again soon, even if London’s Olympic Stadium might need re-jiggering from its post Games configuration.

*Change the perception that the IOC wants new cities so it can use them as pawns on its chessboard, then, despite fervent disclaimers, all but forcing the cities to go big or go home. While the IOC is contributing a larger share of organizers’ costs, the IOC largesse is a let-them-eat-cake drop in the bucket when the numbers reach $30 billion and up.

Even with a regular rotation of cities, the IOC would need to contribute more financially and logistically. Had it put Guccis on the ground immediately after Rio was awarded the 2016 Olympics rather than waiting until the final two years, many of the problems – and attendant negative publicity – would have been avoided.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. By Olaf Kosinsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. By Olaf Kosinsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The IOC must stop the pervasive thinking that athletes’ villages need to meet four-star hotel standards. Modern university dormitories should be fine for a Summer Games. Developments designed to be good low- and moderate-income housing would be fine for Winter Games (when universities are in session.) And some universities would build new student housing with the promise of a decent rental fee from Olympic organizers.

The IOC must think smaller, not bigger. Even the Winter Games can make a large city crumble under their logistical and financial burden. There is too much need for bread to indulge in gargantuan circuses.

Especially for the Winter Games, the rotation need not include just one city per country, if more than one city is willing to invest in long-term upkeep of facilities. You could have USA-Europe-AsiaCanada-Europe-USA-Asia-Canada-Asia-Canada-Europe-USA. For the Summer Games, Oceania – and one day Africa – would go into the mix.

And I would throw in this even more radical idea, especially since Agenda 2020 opened the possibility: spread a single Olympics over two or (many) more countries on the same continent or several geographically disparate cities in the same country, putting sports in places where they are closely followed.

I could imagine a Winter Games with alpine and freestyle skiing in Italy, Nordic skiing and snowboarding in Norway, sliding events and ski jumping in Germany, figure skating and biathlon in Russia, curling in Scotland, speedskating in the Netherlands, hockey in Sweden.

How about a U.S., Summer Olympics with track & field in Eugene, soccer in Los Angeles, San Jose, Portland and Seattle, swimming in Omaha, triathlon on Hawaii, wrestling in Iowa, basketball in New York, volleyball in Orange County, boxing in Las Vegas, gymnastics in Houston, rowing in Boston, golf at Augusta National, etc.?

Once again, the TV-internet consumer gets the same experience as he or she would from watching the games in the same country. And different time zones might make scheduling easier. You could have a virtual opening ceremony, piped onto video screens in the several countries or cities, with different parts of the ceremony in each. (If the athletes’ parade were spread, it would not be interminable.)

Yes, there would be no central Olympic Village, which would affect summer athletes more than their winter counterparts. And that shared “Olympic experience” would disappear. If that is the price of keeping overall costs way down, it could be worth it. And, coincidentally, it might achieve part of the original goal of spreading the message.

Right now, the only bad idea is to do nothing.

By Philip Hersh for The Sport Intern

This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba.