Monday, March 1, 2010

The homeless Olympic Games

Well, the Olympics are over, and though they were fun to watch, I can't help but wish that the television coverage was quite a bit different than it actually was, which is a fairly regular post-Olympics complaint.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Charles Banks-Altekruse has a different complaint: the Olympics, he says, need a permanent home:

The father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, thought that rotating Olympic sites would promote peace and understanding and open portals into exciting foreign cultures. But the idea of those portals seems quaint in the Internet age. At the same time, the financial problems plaguing the Games — corruption, recurring cost overruns, decaying former venues and excessively costly bid campaigns — have tarnished the luster of hosting the Olympics. Nonetheless, like lemmings, cities queue up to compete to lose money, only to regret it later.

The poster child of financial calamity remains the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where costs exceeded estimates by some 400 percent, nearly bankrupted the city and took 30 years to pay off. The $14.4 billion cost of the 2004 Athens Games likely contributed to Greece’s financial problems today. And of course there were the extravagant 2008 Beijing Games, with a reported price tag of $40 billion or more. A lack of transparency obscures the full cost of China’s outlays, but already many Olympic structures have been shuttered. And the 2012 London Olympics are already over budget, while plans for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia call for building most venues from scratch.

Few Olympic cities have fared better. The Olympic committee in Sydney reported that the 2000 Games, widely considered a success, had broken even, but the Australian state auditor estimated a long-term cost of over $2 billion. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics made a profit — but only because organizers relied on existing arenas and volunteer labor.

And then there are the political costs of rotating Olympic sites. Boycotts prevented thousands of athletes from competing in the Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles Games, and it’s impossible to forget the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Most recently, protesters opposed to the awarding of the 2008 Summer Games to China disrupted the Olympic torch relay around the world.

Mr. Banks-Altekruse, a former Olympic rower who lost his chance to compete with his team when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, may have a point. Certainly it could be argued that heads of state don't need to waste valuable political time in fruitless quests to secure the Olympics for their own nations or favorite cities; in addition, of course, as he points out, the costs of hosting the Olympics have grown staggering, and will likely continue to increase, while the benefits to the host city continue to shrink.

But is it even remotely possible to have some "neutral" city take over as a permanent Olympic venue? Banks-Altekruse suggests Switzerland, but though the Swiss may be politically neutral, when it comes to the Olympics--especially the Winter Games--they're likely to be as partisan as anybody. And would placing the Olympics in one permanent country really root out the corruption that has frequently surrounded the games, or would it only give that, too, a permanent home?

I'm honestly not sure what to think, here. On the plus side of having the Olympics in a permanent home would come much saner opening and closing ceremonies, in which it would not, say, be necessary to give a lengthy tribute to tartan-clad fiddle-bikers who spontaneously combust, for reasons which remain completely unclear to everyone except, perhaps, those who live in the host country; on the minus side, though, we might be treated every two years to a thinly-disguised commercial for Switzerland's tourism board which would have all the excitement and novelty of a book of Business Poetry. Other things would likely change little, too: we'd still have politics, we'd still have the possibility of corruption, we'd still have complaints about the home team, we'd still have Bob Costas's employer holding the short-track speed skating hostage to an insanely late-night broadcasting schedule--oops, did I just say that out loud?

The point is, this seems like one of those situations where as bad as moving the Olympics to new cities every couple of years might be, leaving the games in one city all the time could potentially be no better, or even a lot worse. If nothing else, keeping the Olympics from becoming "The Olympics--exclusive product of [Insert Country Name Here]!" might be a good reason to keep them moving.

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