Why Madrid should host the 2020 Olympics

Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid are racing down the final stretch to Olympic glory.
Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid are racing down the final stretch to Olympic glory.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
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Hosting the Olympic games is a dream most cities will never realize. But reaching the round of three, as Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid have in their bids to host the 2020 Olympics, is an honor in itself.

Each city has put forth its respective bids, which each include two separate presentations and an official video (below).

The Olympic committee votes on the final decision in September and has repeatedly said that this is one of the closest years ever, but there many reasons to believe that’s not exactly true. Here’s a reality check.

Istanbul: Everything the Olympic committee wants—and everything it fears

The city’s bid says that Istanbul is an exotic city “built on eight millennia of history, a decade of economic growth and now-proven capacity” presents the opportunity for the Olympics to be hosted in country that spans both Europe and Asia. Istanbul presents serious allure. After all, it’s the city’s fifth bid to host the games. But as recent protestors have claimed, what looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily work in practice.

Istanbul’s pitch rests on the notion that it offers the union of disparate backgrounds, faiths and cultures. But it’s message about bridging cultures, religions and generations appears half-hearted at best amidst the country’s recent bout with political unrest. Protests across the country, and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unwillingness to properly acknowledge them, has underscored a growing rift between the country’s ruling religious right and secular contingencies. Under Erdogan, Turkey’s government hasn’t embraced progressivism, but rather displayed a penchant for pseudo-authoritarianism. Many Turks also feel that their country’s economic health has been overstated. Applauding its growing GDP is akin to ignoring the perils of its brusque shortsightedness. If Turkey spends billions building stadiums, which look nice but do little for the country’s infrastructure, who is to say people won’t take to the street again like Brazilians have in advance of the World Cup?

What’s more, recent doping busts have brought the country’s athletic integrity into question. The city has been unable to fill seats during the U-20 World Cup over the past week, raising further questions about whether it should host the world’s largest tournament in 2020. The Olympic commission has already noted Istanbul’s infrastructural shortcoming in its report last month: “due to the estimated traffic growth the Commission believes that the risk of road congestion during the Games remains high.”

And, all of this comes without mention of the billions Turkey would have to spend in infrastructure, stadium building, security forces, and more—the estimate stands at a whopping $19.4 billion—and all without any promise of return outside of a two-week spike in tourism activity and international TV time.

Tokyo: The safest, and least novel

On the other hand, Tokyo offers what Istanbul doesn’t: little risk.

Its bid focuses on the “the power of sport,” promotion of “national spirit, unity and confidence,” and the offer of “hope” in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It is believed by many to be the commission’s favorite.

The city carries with it the identity of being a trendsetter, having a passionate sports fan base, and carrying a rich and decorated history, all of which the Olympic committee praised in its 110 page report last month. Hosting the games would allow Japan to share its culture with the West, much in same way China was able to back in 2008 games.

Yet its strongest ally is likely the country’s economic health. At a time of global economic and political uncertainty, the city offers remarkable stability. The costs of hosting the Olympics can be devastating—which Athens, with its billions in outstanding debt and scores of unused and abandoned stadiums, can attest to—but with Tokyo’s $4.5 billion reserve fund, the games pose little, if any economic risk for the city. And it already has 20 corporate sponsors lined up to help it secure the bid, including Toyota and Japan Airlines.

That all being said, Tokyo doesn’t offer much in the realm of novelty. Not only did it already host the games back in 1964, but Japan has hosted the winter Olympics twice since. And Tokyo is less of an up-and-coming metropolis, and more of an already established player in the world of sport. There’s also reasonable concern that the region’s susceptibility to natural disasters risks setbacks in its infrastructure and readiness for the games in 2020. Tokyo bidders have ensured “robust” anti-quake construction standards and necessary anti-tsunami safety measures were in place, but there is only so much a city can do to prepare for the unknown.

A bid for Tokyo would mark a win for steadiness, but what’s so exciting about that? Surely, the world’s greatest games can do better it.

Madrid: Where the games will—or at least should

—be held

Enter Madrid. Many have long seen the city as a distant third, but it should be the favorite.

The city’s bid rests on the hope that hosting the 2020 Olympics will ”provide a catalyst for industrial and commercial activity, generate jobs, attract investment, promote tourism and strengthen the image of the city and of the country as a whole,” all of which Madrid, and more generally Spain, needs right now.

There are, of course, economic concerns associated with choosing Madrid. The wounded state of Spain’s economy has been seen as a major weakness for Madrid’s bid, with the country’s unemployment now hovering upwards of 25% amidst an ongoing recession. But the games are more than six years out, and Spain’s economy has already begun to show signs—however slight—of recovery. Look no further than the city’s latest presentation, earlier this month, for proof of its appeal; Madrid shined. ”If you’re grading performance, Madrid did the best in terms of the message and delivery of it,” Canada’s International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said.

While the likelihood that an Olympic nod will spur sustained economic growth in any city, let alone country, is slim (bidders, after all, tend to grossly overestimate the economic benefits of hosting the Olympics) Madrid is actually pretty well-suited to make that assertion. Just look at Barcelona, arguably one of the greatest examples in recent history of post-Olympic economic success. Barcelona ran up a reported bill of some $6 billion in debt to host the games, but has come out the victor by announcing itself unto the world as a purveyor of arts and culture and prime travel destination. Madrid, perhaps, is even more poised to reap the benefits than Barcelona was in 1992. This is Madrid’s third consecutive bid, and ”almost everything needed for the 2020 Olympics is already built, is already up and ready to go,” Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy explained. In fact, Madrid already has over three-fourths of its Olympic venues in place (far more than Tokyo and Istanbul), and estimates it would only spend some $1.9 billion on additional construction for the games. Even if the costs were to double, that’s still significantly less than the last three host cities—London, Beijing or Athens—spent: $12 billion, $40 billion and $16 billion, respectively.

Perhaps Madrid’s appeal is best incapsulated in a speech given by Spain’s crown prince Felipe earlier this month. “Madrid is not a bid based on dreams because we have already built it,” he said. ”It is a bid in keeping with the times. We have shouldered the responsibility and reduced the risks so that you, the IOC, do not have to take any.” There are risks inherent in choosing Madrid, much as there are risks in choosing any other country, but those risks are marginal.

In reality, what began as a three horse race, has narrowed to a two-city duel between Tokyo and Madrid. Tokyo seems like the likeliest of the two to win the committee’s favor, given its infrastructural capabilities, social accountability and economic health. But it would be foolish to discount Madrid. The city is poised to host the games in 2020, and Spain needs the uplift now more than ever.