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It's Possible To Stop The Olympics From Screwing Over Host Countries

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Anti-government demonstrators burn a Brazilian flag during a protest on the Rio de Janeiro state economic crisis and against 2016 Rio Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 6, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)

Twelve summers ago, the Olympic torch was lit in Athens, marking the glorious return of the international games to their original birthplace.

Unfortunately, Greece lost.

No, not the Olympics themselves -- they ranked 15th overall, including a half-dozen gold medals -- but Greece lost the gamble that hosting the Olympics Games would benefit the nation and its citizens. And they lost big.

By 2010, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 Greeks were rioting in the streets -- and three people lost their lives after protestors threw petrol bombs at a bank, burning it to the ground. The country became a veritable war zone in reaction to severe austerity measures announced by the government to reign in the country's debt crisis.

The crisis was set off by the Great Recession of 2008 and fuelled by systemic corruption and mismanagement, but as Bloomberg reported, "the 2004 Olympics triggered Greece's decline."

The 2004 Olympics were, at the point, the most expensive ever and CBC reported that Greece paid out somewhere between $15 billion and $32 billion. By the time of the London Olympics, only one of the 22 facilities in Greece was still being used (though some are now housing refugees) and the country's economy remains in rubble to this day.

This is how Politico put it last year in a piece headlined "How the Olympics rotted Greece:"

"The [International Olympic Committee], nestling comfortably among the banks in Switzerland, should have known better. But the IOC, eager to distribute Olympic profits to its stakeholders (the National Olympic Committees and the international sports federations) and to promote the interests of its corporate partners (the sponsors and broadcasters), seems not to care. It brings its circus to town for 17 days and then, after the final fireworks end the most expensive party in the world, leaves, never to return. The host must clear up the broken bottles."

Now that party has come to Brazil, a country already buried under the broken bottles of the 2014 World Cup, embroiled in a political crisis and embattled by horrific income inequality.

Just last month, Francisco Dornelles, the acting governor of Rio de Janeiro's state government, declared a "state of financial disaster" because a recession and falling oil prices were "stopping the state of Rio de Janeiro from honouring its commitment to the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games."

None of this should be a surprise to anyone who remembers how the 1976 Montreal Olympics nearly drove La Belle Ville into bankruptcy, as most indelibly symbolized by the now-empty Olympic Stadium's nickname "The Big Owe." The games left Montreal with a $1.6 billion debt that they finally paid off... in 2006.

They bring joy to so many that we need to devise some way to stop them from also bringing so much pain in the form of billions of dollars of debt.

The argument for hosting the Olympics, aside from justifying infrastructure spending, is the boon to tourism, but there's no evidence of that.

The Vancouver Winter Games, for instance, cost $7 billion and the Globe and Mail reports it had no "significant boost to tourism."

A supporting economic study analyzed three football World Cups and five Olympic Games and found "very little positive effect" on tourism but concluded these events make people happy and that "politicians capitalize on this feel-good factor; harnessing the hubris associated with these events for political gain."

But not everyone is happy in Rio. The city has cut health care and education funding, has a hard time paying the police and CBS reports "at least 20 per cent of the population here lives in favelas."

This is how one local student put it to the Guardian:

"The Olympic Games is a dream that became a nightmare. ... I see the millions and billions spent on overpriced Olympics construction, which should be spent on education, health and projects for people of the favelas to have opportunities to grow and participate in the development of the whole city. Rio does not need the Olympics. We need basic things that, unfortunately, are not in the interests of the politicians, who live in Leblon and Ipanema, facing the beach."

So what can we do about all this?

People around the world love the Olympics. The Games bring nations together and promote peace through friendly competition. They tell life-affirming stories of humanity's endurance and drive and the capabilities of our bodies.

They bring joy to so many that we need to devise some way to stop them from also bringing so much pain in the form of billions of dollars of debt.

Some have argued splitting the events up and sending them to multiple countries, though that defeats the assemblage purpose of the Games. Others argue for building a single location, which makes sense in that international structures like the United Nations or the Hague aren't rebuilt every few years in new nations. But that, too, defeats the international raison d'etre of the Olympics. (Though to be fair the original Olympics stayed put in Greece for 1,100 years.)

But I think the best solution would be to build five permanent Olympic sites on each of the continents. What better way to live up to the Olympic iconic ring logo? After all, the Rio Olympics are the games' first foray into South America and they've never been to Africa, despite the U.S. hosting eight times.

These sites could be chosen and developed over the coming decades. They would be reused on a rotating basis, avoiding the problem of wasteful, unused facilities, and funded by international contributions from competing nations. That way the burden can be shared by everyone rather than punishing the host country's most vulnerable citizens.

This was actually first floated in a NY Times editorial back in 1984 by Willliam E. Simon, president of the United States Olympic Committee the year Los Angeles hosted the summer games. Those games were actually the first to make money since 1932, but he still argued the IOC should " consider proposals to establish five permanent Olympic sites."

The Olympics don't have to be a loser for locals when there are potential solutions out there that could finally transform the Games into a win-win for the world.

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