Once upon a time, the Olympics were a source of great pride for many countries all over the world. The founder of the modern games (1894), Pierre de Coubertin, created a vision of an international movement that, “stood for respect, fair balance, pursuit of excellence, joy in effort, and balance between mind, body and will.” Many of these values have been deeply challenged in the recent Games, causing some observers to wonder if we have come to an end of an era.
In last week’s Stuff YOU Should Know column, btw brought you news of the underwhelming competition for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Just two countries—Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China—submitted bids. A major criticism of the bidding process is that it can be very costly to do so (several million dollars). Another concern is that the host city is responsible for any cost overrun associated with the Games.
Earlier this summer, Boston, Massachusetts officially withdrew its bid to host the 2024 Summer Games. Despite a plan to be “cost-effective” (with an estimated budget of $4.5 billion) by making use of existing facilities and erecting temporary venues, the bid attracted opposition from Bostonians. A committee called No Boston Olympics was largely credited with the cities ultimate withdraw of its bid, citing economic feasibility. On the flip side, a city like Los Angeles (the runner-up to Boston) could be an “ideal” host city because it has hosted the Games before (most recently in 1984) and could make great use of that existing infrastructure.
Plagued by Scandal
The most recent Games, Winter 2014, held in Sochi, Russia, were the most expensive Olympics in history. It cost $50 billion (in comparison, the 2012 games in Vancouver cost $7 billion). According to the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International, nearly 50 percent of the construction budget was spent on alleged corrupt activities (embezzlement and kickbacks). In addition, reports reveal that the construction was low quality and posed a danger to the environment (waterways polluted by construction waste and forests cut down unnecessarily).
And speaking of pollution, another disturbing story out of Rio de Janeiro, the host of the upcoming Summer Games of 2016 shows that the venues for boating and other water events are terribly contaminated with human sewage. The result of this problem may be tied to loose construction oversight . . . but it puts the health of the athletes competing in the Games are significant risk.
The 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah came under scrutiny for scandal in its bidding process. The International Olympic Committee was accused of taking bribes from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, who was ultimately awarded the bid. One of the brides uncovered was the tuition payment of an IOC member’s child.
In addition to these examples of specific instances of scandal, critics of the Games routinely cite the poor human rights records of some host countries. They believe there is a hypocrisy in an organization that, in the words of its founder, “positioned sport as a model for peace and harmony.”
Despite a flagging interest from potential host countries and a growing cynicism from the general public, there is still a belief by some that the Olympics could redeem itself. Back in December, the IOC implemented created Olympic Agenda 2020. This is a document made up of 40 detailed recommendations that includes strategies for reducing the costs of bidding, more realistic evaluations of potential host cities, strengthening compliance, increasing transparency, and fostering a better global dialogue. And, much will depend on the television ratings that are compiled for upcoming Olympics. Even with all of these problems, if people around the world continue to watch, the Games will likely continue.