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.