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Armour: Six Months After Olympics, Rio is Falling Apart and the IOC Should Have Seen it Coming

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Photo: Eurosport

The legacy of the Rio Olympics is a farce.

The closing ceremony was six months ago Tuesday, and already several of the venues are abandoned and falling apart. The Olympic Park is a ghost town, the lights have been turned off at the Maracana and the athlete village sits empty.

“It’s not a good look for us,” IOC member John Coates told Around the Rings in a story published Tuesday.

And yet it was one that so easily could have been avoided.

The IOC will no doubt blame organizers, politicians and everyone else who saw dollar signs in Rio’s grand plans. But the billions that were wasted, the venues that so quickly became white elephants, the crippling bills for a city and country already struggling to make ends meet — this is on the IOC as much as anyone.

It didn’t take a Nobel Prize economist to see Rio’s pitfalls back in the fall of 2009, when the IOC was selecting a 2016 host.

Yes, Brazil’s economy was booming then. But the country was already committed to hosting the World Cup in 2014, a tournament that would ultimately cost $15 billion. It had hosted the Pan Am Games two years earlier and, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, failed to deliver on promises of clean water and infrastructure (sound familiar?) or build venues that also could be used for the Olympics.

Add in the corruption that’s endemic to Brazilian politics and business, and the IOC could have — should have — seen this coming.

“I think you’re assuming there’s some deeper-level thinking going on here,” said Jules Boykoff, author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. “I’m afraid that’s just not happening.”

That it’s not could very well threaten the future of the Olympics.

IOC President Thomas Bach talks a good game, touting cost-efficient Olympics as the centerpiece of his Project 2020 Reforms. But Olympic leaders’ definition of cost-efficient is not exactly the same as that of normal people.

These, after all, are folks who have come to expect five-star hotels, first-class transport and per diems that run as high as $900. Try telling them a temporary stadium or a spiffed-up existing one is better than a shiny new jewel and see how well that goes over.

But countries are getting wise to the IOC’s game. They’ve seen too many venues sitting empty and unused in Athens, Beijing and Sochi, and lost track of how many zeroes are in the bills. They’ve heard the empty promises and seen the public rage that follows.

No longer are they willing to trip over themselves for the privilege of throwing the IOC a party. No longer are they willing to host at all.

Stockholm and Oslo, both of which have hosted Olympics before, were among four cities that dropped out of the running for the 2022 Winter Games, leaving the IOC to decide between Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Rome has already said thanks, but no thanks to a bid for 2024, and Budapest is reportedly soon to follow, leaving the IOC to decide between Los Angeles and Paris.

Now, Los Angeles and Paris are among the world’s glamour cities, and either would allow the IOC to trumpet yet another turn on the grand stage. But it cannot disguise the fact the IOC is getting perilously close to the situation it faced in the early 1980s, when the Olympics were practically an orphan with no one willing to take them in.

“We’re seeing in city after city, citizens are asking big and important questions even before they get the Olympics,” Boykoff said.

“The word is out that the Olympics bring problems to your city,” he added. “They bring great athletes, they bring a lot of excitement, they bring a sugar high. But that’s just empty calories and that’s eventually going to hit you. And that’s what we’re seeing now in Rio.”

It’s heartbreaking to see the waste and debt the Olympics left in Rio and know it could have been avoided. The leaders of Rio and Brazil will have to answer for that.

The IOC should, too.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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