John Rennie Short, a professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of 37 books on urban environmental, geography and geopolitics. He has written extensively on his research on the urban impacts of hosting the Summer Olympics.
The Olympic rings outside a stadium in Montreal. Image by Flickr user Shawn Carpenter
The Olympic rings outside a stadium in Montreal. Image by Flickr user Shawn Carpenter

The mayor of Boston announced this week that he won’t support the bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, scuttling the city’s chances of hosting the Games.

Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles – the other cities who competed to represent the United States – are understandably frustrated. But really, the mayor’s reticence makes sense.

The Summer Olympics are one of the biggest spectacles in the world, and come with a hefty price tag. Hosting the Games demands major urban infrastructural investment, new or expensively upgraded sporting venues, and housing for 10,000 athletes (plus thousands of spectators). As the German economist Holger Preuss has shown, this crowds out other forms of public investment, such as spending on education and social welfare that may better serve the long-term needs of citizens. 

During the years of construction, thousands of people are displaced or dislocated. By some estimates, the staging of the last 20 Olympic games displaced 20 million people. At least 750,000 people were displaced by the Seoul Games, when the  government cleared low-income areas for stadiums. Thirty thousand — predominantly African Americans — were forced to move during the Atlanta Games, to make way for sporting venues; 1.25 million people lost their homes during the Beijing Games. 

All this headache comes at a tremendous cost for the host city. The 2012 London games cost the organizers $14.6 billion, with more than $4.4 billion from British taxpayers. The 2016 Games, in Rio, were projected to run to $2.3 billion. But already, that figure has risen closer to $15 billion, and counting.

Though Olympic boosters say the Summer Games allow a city to showcase itself to a global audience, only two Games, both in Los Angeles, have ever made a real profit. They managed to do so by using existing facilities and commercializing the Games to an extent that the IOC is unlikely to accept again.

These soaring costs are baked into the city selection process. The game of the Games is rigged, with the IOC bearing no cost but reaping great profits. The competition is designed to force cities to bid ever upward, proposing state-of-the-art projects that they might not even need. Because of the mounting price tag, the vast majority of countries could never afford to host the Games.

We need a new model, and I think the solution is obvious. We should build the Summer Olympics a permanent home.

Instead of investing billions of dollars for a new city every four years, we could create a permanent Olympics city, with facilities and athlete housing. Though any city could take this one, I’d prefer a small island with few inhabitants. This way, we’d avoid the disruption and social dislocation and eliminate the often-massive costs to citizens in the host cities. It would also serve our sportsmen and sportswomen. Younger athletes, especially from the less wealthy parts of the world, could practice there for years. The site could become an international convention center of sorts, serving as a gathering hub for arts and culture as well as sports.

We could handpick architects and designers who specialize in sustainability and responsive architecture. These state-of-the-art green buildings could offer a model of sustainable urbanism to a wider world. The same site would also standardize the sporting element, providing a stable setting and climate against which to benchmark athletic performances over time.

The IOC which profits off the games, should facilitate and fund this project. The initial cost of $100 billion could be offset against bonds or loans on the basis of future media revenues. As one of the biggest events on the planet, it would not be difficult to generate funds to cover the initial construction and operating costs.

It would mean no renewal of the Barcelona waterfront, or the remediation of Home Bush Bay in Sydney or the lower Lea Valley in London. But for every Barcelona and Sydney, there is also an Atlanta and Beijing where the poor were displaced and further marginalized. The only cities that can afford to host are already places with booming tourist industries and jobs, so it’s not like those opportunities will be squandered either.

The very recent Greek crisis provides an opportunity. The Greeks are in hock to around $271 billion to all official lenders. The government in Athens has agreed to transfer state assets of $80 billion to an independent fund. How about selling a permanent site in Greece for the Summer Olympics? An uninhabited island would be ideal, not too far from the coast accessible by ferries as well as planes.

The sale will allow an international zone to be created, provide desperately needed revenue to Greece, some relief for debtors while the necessary construction happens and could help to stimulate the Greek economy. Having a permanent site for the summer Olympics would also return the Games to their historic birthplace, and dispense with the fiscal insanity of cities overbidding for the Summer Olympics leaving themselves with debts and underused infrastructure.

Providing a permanent home for the Summer Games is, I contend, more appealing to the Greeks than selling off islands to rich Germans. And they’ve done it before. The original Olympics was held in Olympia, Greece for 800 years. The changing site is a modern phenomenon used to spread support in the early stages of the modern Olympic movement. Why not return the Games to their real roots?