After Hamburg Rejection, Crossroads Looming On Olympic Identity

With citizens of Hamburg, Germany officially voting down its city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games, those Games have now seen a pair of promising host cities (Hamburg and Boston) earn their country’s bid only to have local citizens say no.

In a world where hosting high-level sporting events has begun to draw paralyzingly-large event costs, the double 2024 debacle begs the question: will we see a shift in how Olympic bids are viewed and selected?

Practicality Over Extravagance?

The expected cost of hosting the Summer Olympic Games has skyrocketed in the last two decades. Various sources peg the cost of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics between $1.7 billion and $2.4 billion, which was already a marked increase from the figures of the previous decade, which fell in the hundreds of millions.

But the costs have grown exponentially higher in the 19 years since – the 2008 Beijing Olympics topped out at a whopping $44 billion according to a city spokesman in 2008, and though the 2012 London Games were less extravagant at about $10.4 billion, the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 set a new costs record at $51 billion.

With the way the bid process is set up, extravagant bids are the ones that get selected. It makes sense from the perspective of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – the most lavish bid produces the best environment for athletes, spectators and IOC brass. But what happens when potential hosts outbid each other into a price range that’s unrealistic for all but a few cities, and one that makes it nearly impossible for the host nation to break even on the Games?

Host cities for major events (the Olympics, but also the World Championships of swimming) are becoming harder and harder to find as the costs overwhelm all but the wealthiest of nations. If the IOC wishes to spread its Olympic Games around to various countries and continents, it may have to start selecting bids on the basis of practicality, rather than the extravagance of the cost figures.

Of course, there might not be much incentive for the IOC to change its selection criteria at the moment, at least until bids become ‘stale’ with the same five or six cities submitting in each cycle and all fresh hosts balking at the high costs.

Alternate Route: A Showcase of Luxury

The alternative for the IOC is to continue down its current path, which would embrace, rather than avoid, the concentration of events in the wealthiest of cities.

This course would make the Olympics more of a rotating showcase of the world’s wealthiest and most prestigious cities. Perhaps only a handful of cities could ever afford to host the event, but that exclusivity might actually add to the aura of the event. It would be a bit like the NFL’s Super Bowl, where only a small portion of the league’s 32 teams have any chance to host the sport’s biggest event, and the league as a whole continues to profit from cities building massive, taxpayer-funded stadiums in the hopes of joining the exclusive inner circle of championship hosts.

Going with the ‘showcase’ route would provide the most amenities for athletes and coaches. It would probably add to the “wow” factor for spectators, who would flock to lavish settings and wealthy cities to see the multi-billion dollar complexes and developments as much as the sporting events themselves.

But the tradeoff would be geographic diversity. We might never see an African host. South America might be done for good after Rio in 2016. The Games would likely rotate between a couple of large European cities and the few Asian nations equipped to host, with the occasional event branching out to Australia, the United States or Canada, all three of which have proven somewhat disinterested in the costs of hosting major international sporting events.

The other downside is that the pool of potential hosts could include some risky, though wealthy, bids. Russia had no problem ponying up $51 billion to host the Sochi Winter Games, but is also facing serious allegations that its government tampered with the anti-doping lab used to drug test those Games.

Meanwhile, athletes from Germany found themselves on the brink of skipping the recent Short Course European Championships in Israel due to security concerns, a phenomenon that could become more common if rising nations in the oil-rich, but conflict-heavy Middle East begin to make up a larger block of the potential hosting pool.

Olympic Identity Hangs In the Balance

Though on the surface, the issue looks like one of pure dollars and cents, there’s a deeper development, too: the future identity of the Olympic Games themselves.

Our entertainment-centric modern era is certainly having its impact on the world of sport. Will the IOC follow that trend and let money drive sport into a showcase model, with Olympics residing in the wealthiest and most extravagant of host cities? Or will winning host bids return to what’s most practical for the sporting events themselves: safe, stable and wide-ranging Olympic environments that counter less-lavish facilities and amenities with more realistic financial entry barriers that open up hosting bids to a wider range of the world’s nations?

As the IOC considers its 2024 bids beginning next year and eventually selects a host in the year 2017, the future identity of the Olympic movement hangs in the balance.

It’s now up to the IOC – and  its current and future host cities’ bids – to help the Olympics decide what they will become.

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SwimDad

I personally have felt that the cost to hold the games exceeded anything realistic quite some time ago. Is there really any way to reasonably justify spending $50 billion dollars on a two week sports festival? And I know they always claim the facilities built will be heavily used for many, many years. We now know that to be routinely false. The facilities in many recent host countries have fallen into ruin and been abandoned. And how does a country with many, many millions of totally impoverished people (including 10 million or more in Rio itself) and completely unsanitary/unsafe water justify spending billions on a two week sports festival. Perhaps they should spend that money on building an economy with… Read more »

Gina Rhinestone

The US military budget is over $600 billion . The Pentagon could hold an Olympics every 10 days for $10 billion each & still have $300 billion for itself . Over 20 years 600 USA cities could have their own Olympics. Over 50 years 1500 Americans towns could have their own Olympics . Then we could start to recycle with obviously new infrastructure needed. Further if we add to Donald’s ideas we could stop all visas & over time only Americans would be Olympic Champions & once again USA would be Sprint Champs again. In short , the Olympics are mostly folly but not the worse use of money & lives. I could think of a few e.g. Miss Universe.(when… Read more »

Jim

While generally a good article, the author is irresponsible in the eyes of this eight time Games worker on a couple of points. First, using Beijing and Sochi as a basis for ballooning Games costs while chronologically accurate does not take into account the political realities of these two past hosts. Beijing used the Games as a coming out party to the world and was going to build opulent venues and have a cast of many thousands to deliver the Games at any expense. This level of delivery, while not discouraged by the IOC, was not a requirement by them. It was a choice of that particular host and by their account the Games were profitable and intrinsically valuable to… Read more »

xracer205

I have long felt it was time to create a permanent host city for the Summer and Winter Games. share the cost of maintaining the facilities among the attending countries according to the number of athletes sent. Athens for Summer, for traditions sake. It wouldn’t hurt their economy either. Although, since the US would pay the biggest share, maybe Los Angeles. Winter could go to Innsbruck or Chamonix. Costs should drop back into the millions after the first round.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson just can’t stay away from the pool. A competitive career of almost two decades wasn’t enough for this Minnesotan, who continues to get his daily chlorine fix. A lifelong lover of writing, Jared now combines the two passions as Senior Reporter for SwimSwam.com, covering swimming at every level. He’s an …

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