BY PAUL GLASTRIS
In 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) picked Rio de Janeiro as the site of the 2016 summer Olympics. “There was absolutely no flaw in the bid,” the IOC’s president, Jacques Rogge, said of Brazil’s proposal.
The choice, however, has turned out to be anything but flawless. Brazil is suffering its worst recession in decades, complicated by a corruption-driven political crisis. As a result, it lacks the funds to finish some of the Olympic venues. Security forces are so strapped for money they can’t even gas up their vehicles, and crime rates have soared. On Thursday, mutilated human body parts washed up on Copacabana beach in front of the Olympic Beach Volleyball Arena. On Friday, armed robbers stole a German TV crew’s transmission equipment.
Similar fears about impending disaster were voiced in the months leading up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But to the world’s surprise, those games turned out to be an extraordinary success. The difference is that in 2004 Greek officials were insisting, to an incredulous world, that everything would be fine, whereas Brazilian officials are openly panicking. The state government in Rio last month declared a “state of public calamity” over its ability to finance the games and related services.
The IOC fancies itself not just the trustee of the modern Olympics but as a player in global governance. Its power derives from its ability to choose which countries will get to host the games—a prize that nations covet and compete for almost as hard as they do the games themselves. The IOC wields that power to ends it deems worthy. It bestowed the 2008 summer games on Beijing to incentivize China’s peaceful integration into the world community. The 1998 games went to Seoul to encourage an emerging civilian government. Brazil won in large part because no South American country had ever hosted before.
The problem is that hosting the Olympic games in a different city every year is unnecessary and, as a matter of basic management, moronic. For one thing, it’s incredibly expensive. A host city must build billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure to accommodate the games, much of which later sits around unused or gets torn down. Part the reason for Greece’s debt crisis—and the continuing Depression-level economic hardships Greece is suffering under the jackboot of its European lenders, especially Germany–is the billions it borrowed to host the 2004 Olympics. Greece’s dilemma was not lost on the UK voters who supported Brexit.
Shifting the games every four years is also a colossal waste of human capital, as Christina Larson noted in the Washington Monthly back in 2004:
With every change of venue, millions of staff-hours of know-how are lost. That’s not how most other major sporting events are organized. Professional golf tournaments return to the same courses year after year, allowing the staffs there to learn from their mistakes. Same with tennis: The groundskeepers at Wimbledon have had decades to practice pulling out the rain tarps and emptying out the parking lots. Yet the Olympics tries to reinvent the wheel every time, fielding a new team of planners, contractors, accountants, technicians, security personnel, and volunteers every four years, and expecting them to execute myriad complex logistical tasks perfectly the first time out. As Atlanta’s Olympic finance chief Pat Glisson explained to CFO magazine, her job was to “create a Fortune 500 company from scratch, then take it apart at the end.”
As Larson observed, the ancient Greeks had better sense than to move the Olympics around from city to city:
For over a thousand years, the games took place in the same wooded sanctuary of Olympia, on the Peloponnesian peninsula. This set-up seemed to work fine. The extant classical texts contain no complaints of faulty Olympic crowd control, misplaced victory wreaths, or insufficient supplies of lamb kabobs.
In her article, Larson argued for going back to the original idea: pick a permanent place to host the Olympics. Greece, she said, was the obvious choice. (The first modern Olympics, in 1896, were in fact held in Athens, but in 1900, the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, moved them in his native Paris, inaugurating the tradition of traveling games.)
Had the IOC taken up Larson’s idea, the world wouldn’t be biting its nails about Rio. Moreover, Greece might not be in such a horrible economic position (it had already built all the necessary and expensive infrastructure and its hotels would be now be full). Things are so bad in Greece that the government had to stop contributing to the training of its own Olympic athletes.
At the Aspen-Atlantic Ideas Festival last week, a questioner was thinking along the same lines as Larson when she floated the idea past IMF chief Christine Lagarde of making Greece the permanent home of the summer Olympics. Lagarde deemed that a fine idea.
Interestingly, the IMF under Lagarde is the one international lender to Greece that has made the case that the country cannot possibly repay all its long-term debts and that those debts need to be restructured and Greece put back on the road to growth (a position the Obama administration has strongly supported behind the scenes). Hopefully, she’ll add to her list of remedies making Greece the permanent home of the Olympics.
Paul Glastris is Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Monthly, where this piece was originally published on July 3, and which he shared for publication with The National Herald.