Despite the almost daily tales of cataclysm and corruption, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the organizers of the Rio 2016 games continue to insist it will be a success. In one very narrow sense, they are correct. Between the opening ceremony this Friday (Aug. 5), and the closing ceremony on Aug. 22, the games will, as they always do, provide fans with hours upon hours of high-performance athletic competition. The games’ broadcasters and advertisers will be pleased, and the views will be spectacular. After all, this is a city that managed to stage the Pan American Games in 2007 even as Complexo de Alemao—a large favela located a mile or so from the games’ main stadium—was under lockdown, and police and drug gangs fought running battles in the streets.
What happens after the cameras leave and the Olympic Village empties, however, will be a different matter.
No medals have yet been awarded, and Rio is already an exemplar of the Olympics’ disastrous model of urban development and planning.This is a disaster 30 years in the making. As with almost all host cities over the last couple of decades, Rio is unlikely to see any perceptible post-Olympics rise in growth, employment, wages, or tourism, and the gains that are made in terms of new transport infrastructure and housing are overwhelmingly focused on neighborhoods that are already super wealthy.
There will be very little new public space, and what is built will be difficult to access. Rio’s police officers may not all be getting paid at the moment and levels of security and safety may be dipping, but the city has been superbly equipped with CCTV and the very best in contemporary riot gear.
London, Beijing, Sotchi, Athens—this is a pattern. It’s time for the IOC to face the facts: The modern Olympics, in which one city attempts to host the games via the massive expenditure of funds and energy, is a failure.
In the recent past, this has resulted in a host of problems including zones of concentrated Olympic super development that create separate and sealed neighborhoods that are scrubbed clear of the poor, sometimes through forced evictions and mass displacements; athletes’ villages that turn into high-end gated communities (or, in the case of Athens, a poverty-stricken ghetto); transportation projects that primarily benefit the few and are subject to spiralling costs; white-elephant stadiums built under dangerous and sometimes repressive working conditions with significant resources lost to corruption and rake-offs in the construction industry. And, of course, the Olympic games also offer countries like Russia the opportunity to whitewash their national problems on primetime.
So what, if anything, can be done? One alternative that periodically makes the rounds is the idea that the games have a single permanent site, perhaps in Greece. This kind of one-off investment would certainly bring an end to the corrupt circus that is the competition to host the games.
On the other hand, questions such as who would run the complex, pay for its immense running costs, and make use of it during the rest of the four-year Olympic cycle present immense practical and political difficulties. Even if someone could come up with a plan to make use of all those five-star hotels in Olympia, the cosmopolitan, globalist luster of the games would be lost.
A better option for taming the Olympics would be to spread the games out from a single host to a network of cities, not necessarily in the same country. This is less radical than it sounds. Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Games, but the vast majority of the competition occurred in the mountains of Whistler, 70 miles away. Similarly, the Beijing 2022 winter games will take place in Zhangjiakou for the most part, which is 120 miles northwest of the capital. The sport of sailing has long forced landlocked cities to become creative as well: In 1936, the infamous Berlin Games made use of Kiel, Atlanta in 1996 deferred to Savannah, and London in 2012 to Weymouth. All these examples demonstrated the ways a smaller and more compartmentalized competition structure can work effectively—and even beautifully.
The experience of the world’s major football tournament is also instructive. The World Cup has, for the most part, used national hosts with eight to 12 co-hosts. South Korea and Japan shared the tournament in 2002 across 16 cities, and three European championships have been split amongst neighbors: Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000, Austria and Switzerland in 2008, and Poland and Ukraine in 2012. The 2020 tournament is due to be staged in 13 cities across the whole of Europe from Baku to Dublin.
Might it be possible imagine an Olympics held in the Baltic States, or even an extended games incorporating the great maritime cities of Poland, Germany, and Scandinavia, which would make it closer to the games of a new Hanseatic League? And while no city in Africa outside of Cape Town has been able to make a serious bid for the games recently, perhaps a cooperative bid split between urban centers—such as across Abidjan, Accra, Lagos, and Douala—could succeed where others have failed.
Of course, merely spreading out the games is not itself a panacea. The advantages of more ready-built facilities, less demand for unnecessary infrastructure, and fewer temptations to indulge in giant, nationalistic municipal renovations might be matched by increasing problems of coordination, conflict, and duplication, and the loss of an obvious festivities center.
The number of serious bidders for the games is in vertiginous decline. There were just two contenders for the 2022 winter games. Of the four cities vying to host the summer 2024 Olympics, Rome looks set to pull out, and Budapest is a lightweight. In both competitions, numerous cities previously withdrew after public opposition made bidding impossible. A multi-city, multi-country option might encourage more innovative bidders and calm public fears.
For over a century the Olympics have been promising a cosmopolitan celebration of humanity, but as the dysfunctionality of Rio and other recent games demonstrates, the Olympics needs more than a change of scenery if it wants to survive the next hundred years.