The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why democracies don’t want the Olympics anymore

Runaway costs could mean more games in authoritarian regimes.

Paramilitary police guard Beijing’s National Stadium during the Olympic opening ceremonies in 2008 (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

While some in Boston are mourning Monday’s announcement that the city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics was over, a more common reaction there was one of relief. Even the allure of bringing the world’s greatest athletes to one of America’s most sports-obsessed towns wasn’t enough to overcome locals’ fears of three weeks of traffic jams, years of construction projects and, of course, a potentially enormous bill for taxpayers.

Ultimately, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s refusal to guarantee that the city would cover any cost overruns incurred by the privately run Boston 2024 organizing committee was enough for the U.S. Olympic Committee to walk away from their commitment to the city, with the hopes of securing another suitable American host to compete for the games. Los Angeles is considered to be the new front-runner, but Washington, D.C., and San Francisco may also wish to revive their bids.

Chicago’s unsuccessful attempt to host the 2016 Summer Games was also brought down by the requirement that the host city provide a financial backstop for the event, as then-Mayor Richard Daley’s last-minute agreement to cover overruns tanked public support for the bid. The Olympic movement suffered another blow last week, too, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his country was scrapping plans for its Olympic Stadium, which was to be the centerpiece of the 2020 games in Tokyo. The Japanese public was never thrilled about the stadium’s design, but outrage boiled over when the project’s $2 billion cost was revealed.

And while the Olympics remain wildly popular among Americans overall (13 of the 24 most watched sporting events in the United States in 2012 were Summer Olympics broadcasts from London), taxpayers in potential host cities have been much less enthusiastic. Residents of New York and Chicago were deeply divided about their bids for the 2012 and 2016 games, and most recently local support for Boston 2024 topped out at a mere 40 percent. You don’t have to be an  Olympic-caliber politician to recognize that’s a losing issue.

All over the world, the public — when given the opportunity to voice an opinion — has become increasingly disenchanted with hosting the Olympics. Earlier this year, five of the seven cities that initially indicated interested in hosting the 2022 winter games dropped out of the running. Not coincidentally, all five of the cities that decided not to bid were in western democracies with a thriving free press and vocal populaces. The IOC is now left with the decision of which autocratic country to collaborate with: Kazakhstan or China. If officials can’t find a way to rein in the sprawling costs, real estate and new construction they demand from their hosts, the Olympics may soon find willing hosts in industrialized democracies in short supply. Over the past several decades, the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” has more often than not meant higher and higher bills for host cities.

[Taxpayers are cool with hosting the Olympics, until they have to pay for them]

The budget for the entire 1948 London Games, even after accounting for inflation, was a mere $30 million, less than Boston 2024’s budget for the slalom canoeing event alone. Even as recently as 1984 in Los Angeles, the total expenditures for the entire event came in at under $1 billion in today’s dollars — or half the price of the proposed Tokyo stadium.

The money problem isn’t new. In 1976, Montreal produced record costs, a stadium whose retractable roof wouldn’t retract and debt that survived longer than the baseball team that became Olympic Stadium’s main tenant after the games.

Even Salt Lake City’s $1.9 billion in expenditures in 2002, a sum that seems almost quaint by today’s standards, raised concerns among organizers. Then-IOC President Jacques Rogge expressed the “need to streamline costs and scale down the Games so the host cities are not limited to wealthy metropolises.” “The scale of the Games is a threat to their quality,” he said. “In a way, they risk becoming a victim of their own success.”

[We should host the Olympics in the same place every time]

But these price tags were just the beginning. Hosting costs routinely topped $5 billion or $10 billion after the turn of the century. Beijing broke all the records with over $40 billion in expenditures in 2008, only to be topped by Sochi’s $51 billion six years later. Qatar is likely to shatter these record costs for hosting a sporting event when it holds the 2020 World Cup at a cost estimated at upwards of $200 billion (and a horrifying cost in human lives, as well). It is notable that all of these bills were run up by cities and countries where political leaders are not accountable to voters.

Of course, it is not just non-democratic countries that have had trouble keeping costs under control. London spent roughly $14.4 billion on the 2012 Summer Olympics, triple their original estimates, while laughably claiming that the event came in under budget. Boston 2024 proposed a budget of roughly $10 billion, despite having at least 12 modern sports stadiums and arenas already in place. If rich cities with well-developed infrastructure like London and Boston can’t host the Olympics without breaking the bank, how can any place keep costs down?

The answer, it’s becoming clear, is that they can’t. Which is why the voters in rich, industrialized cities are exercising the right to say no to the Olympics. There is no shortage of autocratic rulers, though, who might be willing to spend the money they have squeezed from their people in order to experience the ego-boost of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event in their own back yard. Pyongyang 2028, anyone?