Reimagining The Olympics

Pyeongchang, South Korea, built a brand new Olympic stadium to host the Winter Games this year. The 35,000-seat stadium cost $109 million to build. And it will be used just four times before it’s demolished. -(Vox)

This is an appalling waste of money, but still cheaper than the cost of maintaining a useless stadium for years after the Olympics have gone. This stadium had been designed to be dismantled but it’s story points to an interesting history and future for the Olympic Games.

Since the games were refounded they have changed incredibly. The second half on the 20thC saw both the costs of hosting and TV revenue generated grow almost exponentially, and while some Games have been able to make money or rejuvenate their infrastructure and use it as a great investement and publicity tool also many have burdened their host cities with massive debt or unrealised infrastructure improvements.

Now recently it has been increasingly difficult to place the games. Oslo and Stockholm ((Funnily enough Stockholm failed an earlier bid in 2004, but some of that bid was repurposed to into the design of a sustainable eco district within the city, and Hammarby Sjöstad was created. It’s now held up as one of the best examples of a urban sustainability in the world.)) both backed out of bids for 2022, Budapest, Hamburg and Rome also all pulled out of 2024. The IOC given the lack of candidates chose to hunker down with the cities they had left and awarded them each the next Olympic Games, Los Angeles and Paris each taking turns to host them.

The current economics of the Olympics appear a bust for most hosts as the majority of the TV licensing money flows back to the IOC. The articles below go into more detail and are worth a read but I would like to add a thought here about what I would like to see for the future of the Olympics.

The Olympics could be more manageable

The Olympics seem like a tempting proposition for enabling real urban change. The huge global audience and subsequent money that flows from the attention of the world for a few weeks every two years could be channeled back into the cities that host them. Yet this promise seems far out of our grasp, Barcelona in 1992 being one of the few where I think you could argue that it produced lasting gain for the host city. Rio in 2016 showed that the cities that could really have prospered from the Olympics actually suffer worse. The burden of the cost of massive sports stadiums, logistics, security, scheduling and yes corruption bear so heavily that it’s hard to see a sustainable way forward.

But there are some ways to reimagine how the Olympics might still be made to work. Lower the costs by not rewarding bids that call for a lot of new stadium building. Share the TV income, The IOC is has historically been an inept corrupt cartel, it could do with a root and branch revival. Economists Baumann and Matheson have  argued that developing countries should not host the games at all. Economist Andrew Zimbalist who wrote Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup even argued that the Olympics should have one permanent site so the expensive infrastructure needed for the Olympics is not wasted.

Even without going as far as Zimbalist suggests, some sustainable design principles could be required as a template for smaller and more limited Olympic developments which are designed primarily for after the games have departed. One thing the Olympic bids have shown us for the last few years is that something has to change.

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February 26, 2018