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The End of the Olympics As We Know It

Only a handful of cities can afford the two-week-long, über-expensive bonanza. Unless something changes, angry citizens who don’t want to pay for a bunch of useless stadiums are going to force the IOC to decide on a semi-permanent set of hosts.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The Olympic venues in Rio de Janeiro have already become ruin porn. The swimming arena is rusting and falling apart. The Maracanã, the city’s famed soccer stadium, has been vandalized. The golf course is, unsurprisingly, abandoned; the city barely had use for one — money is tight in Rio, and the people with money don’t even like golf — and yet they built a second one for the Olympics. The Olympic Park, well out of the way of the bulk of the city’s population, sits vacant, technically open to the public but unused since there’s nothing there but a bunch of empty arenas. The only event hosted there since August was a beach volleyball tournament in the tennis arena, and even that seemed depressing: a city with so many famously beautiful beaches busing sand to cover a tennis court just so it could say it was using the arena for something.

None of this is unexpected. It’s happened to other Olympic hosts, since — surprise! — the demand for a state-of-the-art velodrome is predictably low. It even happened with some of the stadiums built for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, and, as you might have heard, Brazilians actually like soccer. It was bound to happen in Rio. But it’s still stunning to see. Just six months ago, I walked through the gleaming, gorgeous Olympic Park. Glory fades quickly, but I’ve never seen it happen as quickly as it has in Rio.

Of course, the tragedy of the Rio Olympics is not that the golf course is not in tip-top shape. It’s that Brazil and Rio are woefully short of money needed for vital social services, and the cash frittered away on a sporting event could have helped. Some of the “legacy” projects the games’ organizers claimed would happen — like cleaning the city’s near-toxic bay — never did: The most useful piece of civic infrastructure provided by the Olympics was an extension to the city’s subway line that can help alleviate the city’s traffic issues, but that mainly serves the relatively well-off Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in the city’s southwest, where the now-vacant Olympic Park is. At the very least, it would have been nice for the stadiums bought with those billions to be useful, so Rio could say it got something from hosting the games. Instead, they’re crumbling.

The Olympics are the world’s most internationally revered money-laundering scam. The host country does not pay the International Olympic Committee to host the games. (That would be bribery!) Instead, the host spends a ludicrous amount of money building infrastructure, and the IOC makes a ludicrous amount of money from selling the international television rights and licensing the Olympic name and logo to advertisers. Hypothetically, the host makes the money back in the decades to come by hosting sporting events at its stadiums.

But if that second part never happens — and it almost never does — the IOC has already made its money. The people at the IOC probably think of the Rio games as a fabulous success. After all, the games did go off rather smoothly. Security was fine; nobody spread the Zika virus, per the World Health Organization; the crowds were big and loud; Brazil won a lot of medals. The biggest problems I encountered were the … questionable breakfast food at my hotel (a lot of bad eggs and cold cuts) and taxi drivers who couldn’t find the brand-new hotel complex since the roads weren’t uploaded to most GPS systems. Plus, the IOC contingent in Rio — “the Olympic family,” as the group of well-paid dignitaries without whom the games would still operate just fine is known— didn’t even face these minor problems. They ate gourmet and were allowed to travel in special lanes on the highway, permitting them to breeze past traffic. Then they left, and now they are eating caviar in Switzerland, thinking about the future while the city they bilked bleeds.

The good news is that people across the world are beginning to catch on to this. On Wednesday, Budapest dropped its bid for the 2024 Olympics, leaving just Paris and Los Angeles in the running. Opponents of holding the event in Hungary had successfully petitioned for a public referendum on the games — they needed 138,000 signatures to force a vote; they got 266,000 — and polls indicate the populace likely would have voted against hosting. As a midsize city in a midsize country, Budapest would have needed a spectacular bid with a near-unanimous show of civic enthusiasm for it to be rewarded with the Olympics. That a referendum was even on the table likely doomed them.

Budapest is the seventh city in the past two Olympic cycles whose bid was killed by a referendum or the threat of one. In 2013, all four regions associated with a Munich bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics voted against it; six months later, almost 70 percent of voters in Krakow voted against a bid for the same event; the Swiss canton of Graubünden voted down a 2022 bid in 2013 and two weeks ago voted even more vigorously against a 2026 bid; Hamburg narrowly voted down a bid for the 2024 Olympics in 2015; after Boston was awarded the opportunity to bid for the 2024 games by the USOC, residents of the city and state were so vehemently against the bid that the planned referendum never happened. Vienna has already very strongly voted against the possibility of hosting the 2028 games.

As Aaron Bauer writes for Around the Rings, this is a “relatively new, and troubling” state of affairs for the IOC. Historically, local governments and the private organizing committee they endorse have had all the say in whether or not a city pushes forward with an Olympic bid. That left no recourse for the surprisingly common occurrence of a mayor getting elected for, say, having a good plan on public safety or education, then deciding two years in they wanted their primary legacy to be bringing the Olympics to a city. While the rules on forcing referenda are obviously different from city to city and country to country, there’s a common theme here. Each city has had a grassroots campaign loudly opposing the Olympics; even with different languages, the movements in Hamburg and Budapest were each titled “Nolympia.”

There hasn’t been an anti-Olympics groundswell in Los Angeles, where public approval for the 2024 bid is near 90 percent, according to polls. L.A. is a special situation. It’s hosted the games twice, in 1932 and 1984. The 1984 games ended with a $220 million surplus, thanks to the city government taking preventive measures to avoid spending public money on the games. (A surplus! From hosting the Olympics!)

The plan for hosting the 2024 Olympics shouldn’t wreak the same havoc as Rio’s. It would use a ton of preexisting venues: Staples Center; the Rose Bowl; the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; the Stubhub Center, where the L.A. Galaxy (and temporarily, the Chargers) play, as well as its adjoining tennis center; the basketball arenas of both USC and UCLA, as well as USC’s baseball stadium; L.A.’s convention center; the Microsoft Theater; the Riviera golf course; and Long Beach Arena. There’s one enormous venue that doesn’t exist yet, the new Rams and Chargers stadium, but that’s getting built regardless of whether the Olympics happen. While many of these will need renovations or refurbishments to host Olympic events and other infrastructure will need to be built, the city’s already-existing venues should make the cost of hosting small in comparison with other cities. The most awkward part might be referring to Staples Center by a temporary, nonsponsored name, as the IOC doesn’t permit buildings named after companies.

Only a few cities are capable of hosting a 25-sport mega-festival, and yet the IOC chooses to do it in a different city every four years. Los Angeles can pull it off, but when cities like Rio or Athens — or Budapest — sign up, they are dooming themselves.

We could pick one city — the Olympic City! It would be revered by athletes across the globe. We could have a basketball tournament in New York and an athletics meet in Paris and a swim meet in Beijing, and the events wouldn’t be any less special. We wouldn’t get to see Kobe Bryant watching Michael Phelps swim, but that seems like a small sacrifice. We could host all the events in the same city, but sprinkle Olympic events around the calendar. In April is the Olympic handball tournament, in May we have the gymnastics meet. The city gets to reuse the arena instead of building three, and we give the incredible achievements in each sport full attention rather than lumping every gold medal on top of one another.

Instead, the whole thing is done at once and rotated across the planet — a format that’s a holdover from a different era when the world was less connected, sports weren’t a billion-dollar business, and not every event required a brand-new stadium. I think the IOC does this because it thinks hosting the Olympics in a different place every four years makes them seem more worldly. The committee sees itself as gracing different parts of the globe with the presence of the Olympics, and doesn’t care that doing so dooms unready cities to financial calamity.

This is why referenda are so important. The IOC gets paid whether the Olympics enhance a city or leave it in chaos. It’s up to cities to save themselves. The IOC did not choose to have only L.A. and Paris competing for the 2024 bid: It picked five cities, and had three drop out, two due to the voice of the people. (Rome’s government ended its bid, citing the financial burden.)

I think we’ll see a smaller and smaller pool of cities vying to host the Olympics. This is why Los Angeles is on the brink of hosting its third games. This is why Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, just 14 years after hosting the 2008 summer games. This is why IOC president Thomas Bach is considering awarding the 2024 and 2028 games at the same time — he knows Paris and Los Angeles are both great candidates, perhaps the only two viable cities on earth that would actually agree to host the games. He wants to lock both in now, rather than risk the potential that nobody wants to host the 2028 games. There will probably never be an Olympic City, but we might see the Olympics settle on a rotation of five to 10 hosts, each of which has a reasonable amount of venues at the ready.

The IOC is a parasite: It latches onto hosts, leeches out all the money it can, and leaves a trail of rotting velodromes in its wake. Luckily, cities across the globe have learned how to fight back.