Paul Glastris is editor in chief of Washington Monthly.
Those of us who enjoy experiencing the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” of the Olympic Games could probably do without one particular emotion: the fear that the games, which begin Friday in Rio de Janeiro, will be an operational disaster. So far, the headlines do not inspire confidence. Armed robbers heisting a German TV crew’s equipment. “Uninhabitable” residential facilities for athletes. Marathon swimmers being told not to open their mouths while competing in sewage-contaminated Guanabara Bay.
The 2004 Olympics in Athens were preceded by similar worries right up until the day they began. In the end, those Games were a great success. So there’s reason to hope the same will happen in Rio. Still, the ill-preparedness creates real risks. And those risks are part of a larger set of problems that have long dogged the modern Olympics and that derive from a single, avoidable source: the International Olympic Committee’s insistence on picking a different city to host each Games.
There is nothing sacred about this policy. It began because the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, after holding the first competition in Athens in 1896, decided to have the next one in his native Paris. Since then, the IOC has grown accustomed to the clout that comes with choosing Olympic sites — a prize that nations covet and compete for almost as hard as their athletes do in the Games themselves. This power inspired decades of corruption by IOC officials, culminating in the bribery scandal over the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Despite reforms since then, allegations of corruption continue. The policy has also led the IOC to allow authoritarian regimes to have their “turn” at hosting the Games — from Hitler’s Berlin to Vladimir Putin’s Sochi.
Putting on a modern Olympics is a massive undertaking. Doing it for the first time, with no prior experience, taxes the management capacities of even a wealthy, sophisticated city or country. The Atlanta Olympics’ finance chief once said that her job was to “create a Fortune 500 company from scratch, then take it apart at the end.”
The pop-up nature of the enterprise drives up the costs of construction and operations, according to a study released last month by the University of Oxford. The study found that every Summer and Winter Olympics from 1960 to 2016 experienced massive cost overruns averaging 156 percent, “the highest average cost overrun of any type of mega-project.”
These overruns are related to another resource that is inevitably squandered when the Games get moved around: human capital. The hard-earned expertise a city derives from hosting the Games — the knowledge its planners, contractors, technicians, security officials and armies of volunteers gain on the job — can’t be put to use again in the same way if that city won’t be hosting another Olympics four years later. Instead, another city gets to make the same rookie mistakes.
Then there are the insanely wasteful infrastructure projects that host cities typically build and that are often of little use after the Games leave town. The beautiful stadiums and training facilities that Athens constructed in 2004 have mostly sat idle since — though some of them now house refugees. The billions of dollars Greece borrowed to build these facilities helped tip the country into its current crushing financial crisis. Greece is so broke that the government has stopped paying for the training of its Olympic athletes.
All of this waste, risk and corruption is utterly unnecessary. The ancient Greeks held the Olympics in the same wooded sanctuary on the Peloponnese for a thousand years with no evident complaints in the extant literary record. We should do something similar for the modern Olympics: pick a city or country to be the permanent host — one each for the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Any number of places could do. But Greece is the obvious choice, at least for the Summer Olympics. It has an undeniable historical claim. It staged a well-run Olympics in 2004. The facilities it built wouldn’t be too costly to refurbish. And the extra tourism money that Greece would receive would help it pay off its debts — one reason International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has recently spoken favorably about the idea.
The current Olympic site selection system has become so obviously ridiculous that countries that might otherwise like to host the Games are thinking twice about bidding. Two years ago, Norway pulled out of contention for the 2022 Winter Olympics because of the expense as well as revelations about the entitled demands of the IOC — including specially designated highway lanes for IOC members. Last July, despite efforts by the IOC to help host cities reduce costs, Boston dropped its bid to be the site of the 2024 Summer Olympics after a state-financed report concluded that the only sure way for a city not to lose massive amounts of money would be for the Games to return to that city every four years. A permanent home for the Olympics is such a clearly practical idea that it’s possible to imagine it garnering widespread support — except, of course, within the IOC.