The competition to host the 2024 Olympic Games is underway. Sept. 15 is the deadline for committing to a bid. Paris; Hamburg, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; and Rome are going neck and neck, banking on the games’ promise to bolster local economies. Boston, however, dropped its bid on Monday after Mayor Martin J. Walsh refused “to put city taxpayers on the hook” for cost overruns if the organizers ran out of cash.
Much of the discussion about hosting the Olympic Games is filled with hyperbole. Boston Olympic boosters were portraying the games as a potent economic development opportunity and a chance to confer world-class status on the city. But the games’ real economic effects are clearer than ever. Every Olympics since 1960 has gone over budget, by an average of 179 percent. The extravagant bash has nearly bankrupted some previous host cities. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off its $1.5 billion debt from the 1976 games. Nagano, Japan, fell into a recession after hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics.
As previous Olympic hosts groan under the weight of debt and struggle to maintain expensive, empty venues, it’s time for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the games, to reel the expenses back in. Beyond the massive debt burdens, the games have left behind tarnished reputations for host nations. Greece’s decaying venues from the 2004 Olympics have become apt metaphors for the country’s economic crisis. Viewers are likely to remember for a long time Sochi´s yellow tap water and communal toilets during the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
Boston’s decision to withdraw its bid underscores the growing awareness of the costs and burdens of hosting the Olympics. And yet over-the-top rhetoric about the games’ benefits continues. Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo had said the games could leave “a major ecological legacy,” promising to make the Seine clean enough to host the triathlon’s swimming leg. Rome’s bid president, Luca di Montezemolo, is touting the Olympics as “an opportunity for growth and investment for the whole country.”Doubters are offered the examples of the profitable 1984 games in Los Angeles, which may now replace Boston in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s 2024 bid, or the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, without any context on the evolution of the hosting requirements and the divergent economic realities.
Rio de Janeiro is gearing up to host the 2016 Olympic Games. Rio’s candidacy in 2009 underlined the belief in the Olympics’ power to bestow global approval on a city. The games were pitched as a catalyst for infrastructure modernization and urban renewal, capable of improving the quality of life in the city. Brazil’s then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wept uncontrollably when Rio won the bid.
But seven years later and a year before the opening ceremony, Rio residents can see the games were an expensive gamble. Promises made during the bid have fallen through, and the vast majority of residents are not benefiting from the splurge. Beyond the ballooning price tag for venues (at $2.3 billion and rising) preparations have led toforced removals of low-income housing and a negative environmental return. A promised cleanup of Guanabara Bay, where sailing events are expected to take place, has failed, and some sporting events will likely take place in sewage-tainted water. A program to bring water, electricity and sewage systems to favelas — initially touted as one of the key legacies of the games — was scrapped without explanation, and thenew bus rapid transit routes privilege the wealthy in a city already marred by inequality.
In the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians poured into the streets, angered by overspending on the tournament while hospitals and schools struggled with budget shortfalls. (The scandal-embroiled FIFA pocketed $2.6 billion in profits from that competition.) The latest lavish outlay in Brazil could face a similar backlash in the months ahead. The Brazilian economy remains stagnant, and key venues are over budget and behind schedule. It appears increasingly likely that the legacy of Rio 2016 will be similar to those of previous Olympic host cities: massive public debt and empty venues that are too expensive to maintain.
Rio 2016 could be a tipping point for finally reining in the IOC’s drive toward ever-bigger games. The organization has already expressed anxieties about the expenses associated with hosting Olympic Games. Its 2020 agenda for reform, approved in December, vows to promote economic, social and environmental sustainability and work with candidate cities to reduce bidding costs. But the IOC has made this promise before. In 2003 the IOC vowed to “promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host city and the host country, including a reasonable control of the size and cost of the Olympic Games.” However, this was followed by Beijing and Sochi, two of the most expensive Olympics ever. Rio’s bid was the most expensive of four finalists and its plan for venues the most geographically widespread.
When considering bids for 2024, the IOC would do well to study the social and financial costs of recent games. Rio 2016 could be the last of the big-at-any-cost games and lead to a return to the IOC charter, which defines the Olympic spirit as leading by example, fostering social responsibility and respecting ethical principles. That would be a valuable legacy. But given the organization’s history, there are no indications the IOC is learning from Rio any more than it learned from Athens, Beijing or Sochi.