Ever since I was a boy, I thought it would be really fun someday to watch the Olympics in person. Alas, I might have actually fulfilled this dream if, in late July, Boston had not dropped its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.
That said, the city of Boston almost certainly made the right choice. In recent years, economists have increasingly turned against the Olympics, as their studies have shown that, in virtually every case, the costs drastically outweigh the benefits for the host city, which is forced to pay billions for the necessary infrastructure upgrades. This might actually be a good thing if the infrastructure in question were useful, but too often the shiny new Olympic venues fall rapidly into disuse, which means that, in some cases, the greatest expense of these stadiums, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and tens of millions to maintain (if they are maintained—others turn to blight), is that of lost opportunity: they occupy acres of urban real estate that might otherwise generate revenue and create meaningful employment.
Even the transportation projects—the highways and railways—that cities undertake in preparation for the Olympics are typically of dubious value, since their purpose is to serve the needs of a once-in-a-lifetime event rather than those of the everyday commuter.
At the same time, it’s somewhat unclear whether local business owners profit: it seems that, while sports fans descend upon the host city in droves, many others seek to steer clear of the mayhem. Records show that in London, for example, tourist visits actually declined during the summer of 2012, just as the summer of 2008 saw reduced hotel bookings in Beijing.
It is possible—or was possible, once—for a city (or nation) to make money on the Olympics, but the party has gotten more and more expensive, and the general public has finally taken note. Hence, the local opposition that caused Boston and, earlier, Oslö, to drop their Olympics bids. On July 31, the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Games. China had beat out the only other remaining bid, by Kazakhstan.
Much has been made of Beijing’s unsuitability as a venue for winter sports—its largely snowless climate and the absence of a nearby ski resort, which the Chinese government intends to remedy by constructing an “alpine skiing field” with artificial snow in the drought-stricken mountains 55 miles from downtown Beijing. The previous Winter Games, held in the subtropical Russian beach town of Sochi, cost $50 billion (the highest sum in history), in part because of the distance between the host city and its nearest ski area, which necessitated a particularly expensive highway linking the two; presumably it will cost even more to turn Beijing into a winter wonderland.
Kazakhstan, at least, has genuine ski slopes, but given that the nation ranks 70th in the world on the Human Development Index, the money it would have spent on a new hockey arena probably could go to a better cause.
What does it mean for the Olympics when the only countries that want to host them are Kazakhstan and China? It’s not a coincidence that both countries are run by authoritarian governments that regularly commit major human rights violations. In the near future, we may find that the only nations willing to foist this boondoggle upon its citizenry—with its enormous costs not only to the general taxpayer but, in many cases, to the environment and to impoverished citydwellers displaced by ill-advised development—will be those controlled by vainglorious despots who, frankly, don’t care what the public wants. We may be nearly there already.
The real question, then, is this: what does it mean for the Olympic Games to become evil? In Russia and China, the metaphorical disconnect between the idealistic, freedom-oriented “spirit” of the Olympiad and the oppressive tactics of the host nation’s regime was thought to be distasteful, but the problem may not be so purely abstract, if we grant that the Olympics have the power to lend not only a sense of international legitimacy to the autocratic showoffs who consent to hold them but also a license—or even an obligation—for them to misspend precious public funds and basically make people’s lives worse.
So far, the IOC doesn’t seem to care enough about this issue to enact the fundamental changes that would render hosting duties once more a potentially worthwhile endeavor for an uncorrupt government, but that may change if TV revenues decrease thanks to the reduced viewership of a disgusted public. Much like the Tour de France, the Olympic Games typically function, for the home viewer, as one-half athletic contest, one-half virtual vacation. NBC spends nearly as much time focused on the host nation’s scenery and culture as on the events themselves, highlighting the “journey” (literal and metaphorical) of each athlete.
But what happens when the journey they take is to someplace none of us would ever want to go? What happens when the Olympics completely lose their progressive, feel-good, peace-loving brand? Will we stop watching? And if so, will the IOC find some way—perhaps by reducing the infrastructural demands it makes upon the host—to turn the Olympics back into a reasonable proposition?
As it is, the IOC is stuck in a negative cycle: liberal democracies reject the Olympic Games because they’re too expensive, leaving countries like Russia to pick up the slack. Yet Russia’s corruption and human rights abuses created enormous additional expenses: of the ridiculous $50 billion spent in Sochi, as much as $30 billion may have been pocketed—that is, stolen—by government officials, and much of the rest had to be spent on security to ensure that aggrieved Chechen terrorists didn’t blow up the Olympic Village.
The Winter Games don’t actually need to cost $50 billion. It’s no wonder that, upon glimpsing that price tag, the pragmatic people of Oslö said no.