Between pollution, crime, budget crises, low attendance, and the eviction of an estimated 60,000 people to make room for Olympic infrastructure, it’s looking like the 2016 Games, when the dust settles, are unlikely to be a clear benefit to the people of Brazil. This is a problem because the International Olympic Committee needs more host cities. No one wants to volunteer anymore.
The value proposition of hosting the Olympics goes something like this: A city invests billions to prepare and is supposed to earn back its investment and more in both tourism revenues and in benefits of the infrastructure after the event is long done.
But this premise has been collapsing. Costs to build stadiums and address security concerns are skyrocketing, as former Olympic venues sit mainly empty in cities that have hosted in the past. The cost for Rio’s Olympics? Anywhere from $12 to $20 billion, while the projected revenue may not reach the $5 billion mark.
From Boston to Oslo, local movements have successfully opposed their government’s bids—correctly judging that their cities could probably do better things with the money they would spend on the Games. So many cities have canceled their bids for the 2022 Olympics, in fact, that the IOC has been left with few willing choices. The Winter Games in 2022 will be hosted by Beijing, which isn’t really a winter sports destination and which just hosted the summer games. But it had only one willing competitor in the end: Almaty, Kazakhstan, a smaller city in a developing nation that had little experience hosting big events. The incentives align so that the cities most interested are the more authoritarian—more interested in glory than costs and benefits to citizens.
People all over the world have been calling for reforms of the Olympic business model, and the IOC itself recognizes something must be done to reign in costs and make the event more attractive to cities again. As Chris Dempsey, a member of the team that defeated Boston’s 2022 Olympic bid, told Harvard Business Review, the Olympics were originally structured in 1896 in a world that couldn’t imagine TV, air travel, or the Internet. There’s no need for a different, single city every two years to host such an event anymore.
What should be done? Some experts have been talking about designating one or a small handful of permanent host cities that would take turns hosting each year, without having to build infrastructure from the ground up. Another idea is to extend the life of Olympic facilities by having the same city at least host two Games in a row. Both of these would be more financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable concepts.
An even better proposal, however, could simply be to get rid of the idea of an Olympic city itself, as the Guardian details. The World Cup is usually hosted by a single country, but the venues are distributed in many cities. Why not take that a step further and make the Olympics truly global? Different cities all over the world, or even just in the same region, could host different groups of events, like swimming or gymnastics, and it would cost a fraction of what hosting the full Games would come out to.
One argument against this is that the Games lose their grandeur, with everyone distributed all over the place. But very few people are there in person anyway, and the scale of the spectacle translates less well on a TV screen. This year, most people in the U.S. are watching a taped broadcast in prime time (not without some controversy), not a live event. The taped broadcast could be coming from anywhere—or multiple places.
The Games could even be more exciting in different locations than it is today. Instead of empty venues for obscure events, you could host sports in cities that actually care about them. Though Rio has few fencing fans, you’ll actually find some rabid ones in France, Hungary, and Italy. Why not throw them a bone?
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Correction: This article originally stated that the IOC was having trouble finding cities to host the 2024 games, but several major cities actually want them.