The Olympics should rethink how it hosts games

The desolation from COVID-19 aside, a number of changes could be made that would have a positive impact on how cities host the Olympic Games.



July 1, 2021 - 9:14 AM

The Olympic Rings are displayed by the Odaiba Marine Park Olympic venue on June 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images/TNS)

CHICAGO — Even if this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo are staged with minimal distraction — and that’s a big if — everything about choosing Olympics host sites could use an overhaul.

Tokyo is in an unenviable situation, having the Games postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial commitment the Olympics require already is monumental, and pushing the festivities back a year — though absolutely the right decision — has nudged those costs still higher.

According to The Associated Press, Japan officially has spent $15.4 billion preparing for the Olympics, with $2.8 billion attributable to the delay. Government audits say the overall costs might be twice that, however. The fact the public is footing most of the bill, as is common with the Games, makes it a tougher pill to swallow.

It’s not as if Tokyo’s costs are abnormal either. The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, cost $13 billion. The 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro cost $20 billion. Even costlier were the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with a staggering price tag north of $50 billion.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, it took Montreal nearly three decades to pay off the debt it incurred by hosting the 1976 Summer Games. That type of potential headache no doubt has given cities pause as to whether to mount a bid.

There has to be a better way. Although few, if anyone, could have predicted the effects of the pandemic, other expenses can be mitigated. For one, the Games can be celebrated without requiring only one metropolitan area to build facilities from scratch, only for many to go unused once the Olympics and Paralympics leave town. No one likes to see venues deteriorate into eyesores.

To that end, at least two options are worth exploring to make the Games more manageable.

The first is to take a page out of the FIFA World Cup’s book: Instead of limiting the host site to one city, why not use multiple cities?

This approach could be advantageous for American bids. In the interest of making the Games commuter-friendly, the cities ideally would be a reasonable distance apart (say 150 to 200 miles) and connected via highway and rail. A Bay Area Olympics? That could work. Los Angeles and San Diego joining forces? I don’t see why not. New York and Philadelphia co-hosting? Dare to dream.

Consider Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Games. Even in rejection the project was expensive. According to Chicago Tribune reporting, the bid left the city on the hook for $140 million in principal and interest on the purchase of property for an athletes village as well as costly 10-year union contracts.

But what if Chicago could have made a joint bid with Milwaukee? For starters, both cities have photogenic lakefronts and are separated by just 90 miles. And in the spirit of spreading the attendance wealth, one city could have hosted the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field, while the other could have been home to swimming and gymnastics.

Detractors might say widening the Games’ footprint diminishes athletes’ and fans’ ability to hop from venue to venue, and that’s true. It’s also a concern that can be assuaged by extending the Olympics schedule by a few days.

But distant events never stop fans from packing World Cup stadiums. Beyond that, the surfing competition for the 2024 Games in Paris will be held in Fiji, 9,700 miles from the host city. So there’s precedent for spacing out events.

Another possibility is to choose permanent sites for the Summer and Winter Games, cities that also would be home to the Paralympic Games.

Among the upsides: The unusual facilities required for the Olympics would be slated for regular use. For example, there’s almost no getting around having to build a whitewater course for the kayak slalom — only in 1996 was a natural river used for the event. However, if that course were slated to host the sport’s marquee event every four years, the cost would be easier to justify — especially if other competitions were held there in the interim.

Choosing permanent host cities would be challenging, but there are some starting points. For the Summer Games, solid arguments could be made to root them in Athens (birthplace of the Olympics) or Paris (first host of the modern Games).

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