The Olympics have a host-city problem
IOC trying to rein in costs to make Games more attractive
What was once seen as a sign of world-classness is now viewed by many as a sign of world-crassness. Cities around the world are no longer clamouring to host the Olympic Games.
Last month, the residents of Innsbruck, Austria overwhelmingly rejected a potential bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, joining a growing list of cities — including Boston, Rome and Toronto — that have recently decided against pursuing the Games.
Calgary is still mulling a run at the 2026 Winter Olympics, though it has yet to decide whether to officially enter a bid.
The cities that have pulled out seem to have decided it's no longer worth spending billions of public dollars to host a two-week party.
"Often, if it's open to public scrutiny and an objective cost-benefit analysis, very few publics will vote to have the Olympic Games," says John Rennie Short, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and has written extensively about Olympic bidding.
"The costs are obvious and clear and large and growing... and the benefits are never what is promised. What you are left with is the Chinas and the Russias and more authoritarian societies [bidding for the Olympics]. We are already going back to China for a Games [in 2022].
"There's a sense that the Games are for the very authoritarian or the very desperate."
Studies have shown how costly the Olympics can be for the host city. Sure, some are left with useful sporting infrastructure, but often it's hastily constructed and quickly abandoned venues that are left behind (see: Rio 2016).
Then there are the inevitable cost overruns that accompany things like security and the tight building schedules to which Olympic host cities must commit.
"It makes cities sell their soul for what is really a very specialized event," Short says. "Hundreds of thousands of people come to your city, but it's only for two weeks and you have to build these venues that are often never used again."
The International Olympic Committee's counterargument is that the Games still deliver value to their hosts.
"Cities must understand the Games are very powerful and the legacy is a very long-lasting one," says Christophe Dubi, the IOC's Executive Director of the Olympic Games.
Back to Beijing
But fewer cities seem to feel those benefits are worth the price tag, making willing Olympic hosts increasingly hard to find.
For the 2022 Winter Olympics, the IOC was all but forced to go back to Beijing, even though the city already hosted the Summer Games in 2008, and both the 2018 and 2020 Olympics are also being held in Asia. The only other bid came from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Oslo, Stockholm and St. Moritz all backed out.
For the 2024 Summer Olympics, a robust field appeared to forming with the likes of Toronto, Rome, Boston, Hamburg and Budapest all expressing interest. In the end, only Paris and Los Angeles were willing to bid.
Perhaps recognizing its pool of potential hosts was drying up, the IOC took the unusual step of awarding two Summer Games at the same time, giving 2024 to Paris and locking in L.A. for 2028.
"It is better to have a small bird in your hand than a big bird on the roof," IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters. "Here we have two big birds in our hands, and I cannot see any small bird on the roof. There may be some flying over the roof and making some noise, but none of them has landed on the roof even."
The IOC has attempted to make itself more attractive to potential bidders by releasing what it calls "Vision 2020," a plan to reduce the cost of hosting the Olympics. It allows for host cities to keep more of the revenues from ticket sales and local sponsorship deals. The cost of submitting the bid itself has also been reduced.
'We have to learn from the past'
The IOC is promising to release additional guidelines to make the Olympics more affordable, including encouraging host cities to use existing venues or even hold some events in neighbouring areas that have the needed facilities. Minimum seating capacities would also be lifted.
"We recognize in certain circumstances, the legacy has not been perfect and we have to learn from the past," Dubi acknowledges. "We all have to be transparent about the good things about hosting the Games and the traps to avoid."
Short says the new measures don't address "the root issue."
"The brutal fact is the money," he says. "The IOC pockets [the bulk] of the revenues from corporate sponsors and the lucrative television contacts. It pays some of it out, but never quite enough."
Chris Dempsey, who led the anti-Olympics movement in Boston and co-wrote a book called No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities Are Passing on the Torch, says potential host cites must see the bidding process for what it is.
"The IOC wants you to think of it as a race where the best and fittest city is going to win the gold medal and all of the amazing benefits that come with," Dempsey says.
"It's more of an auction, and they are going to award it to the city that bids up the price as high as possible and meets the demands of the IOC. And unfortunately, the demands of the IOC are often at odds with the needs and wants of a community."