by Erin Wright
Just days after Boston dropped its rancor-filled bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, an article in Al Jazeera stated what many observers had been whispering for years: that the Games had become “too big” and that the International Olympic Committee would be remiss not to look into taking things down a notch.
The writer, Juliana Barbassa, found that in the last half-century the biennial competition had morphed into a boondoggle, costing host cities dearly long after the torch was extinguished. Barbassa wrote:
Every Olympics since 1960 has gone over budget, by an average of 179 percent. The extravagant bash has nearly bankrupted some host cities. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off its $1.5 billion debt from the 1976 Games. Nagano, Japan, fell into a recession after hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Turn the century, and you run into even more examples of what some have branded “the Olympic Shames.” There’s the decaying infrastructure erected for the 2004 Games in Athens, now a scabrous reminder of Greece’s self-inflicted economic wounds. There are the indelible memories of the “communal toilets and yellow tap water” that exposed Russia to social-media derision on the eve of the 2014 Games in Sochi.
And then there are the upcoming 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Barbassa, a native Brazilian, found indications that the endeavor will fall far short of being the economic windfall promised by national leaders upon acceptance of their bid. (To say nothing of the international outrage, charges of racism and potential long-term hit on tourism stirred up by efforts to evict a 12-year-old girl and other indigenous squatters from planned Olympic venues.)
The notion of the Olympics as simply too big — rather than too big to fail — seems to have finally caught the attention of the I.O.C. Its president, Thomas Bach, in discussing bids for the 2022 Winter Games with The Globe and Mail, spun it this way:
The key issue is to deliver a great Games for the athletes, and that means having [a bid] which offers great conditions in the sport facilities . . . to have sustainable and feasible Olympic Games.
But while that’s all well and good, the fact is very few appear to be buying into Bach’s proclamation. Leaving aside Boston’s exit from the 2024 stage, the 2022 Winter Games started out with multiple suitors who had second thoughts. One by one, every European city thought to be interested in bidding for 2022 dropped out. Swiss and German voters nixed proposals backing Davos/St. Moritz and Munich, respectively, and Oslo, Krakow, Stockholm and the Ukrainian city of Lviv withdrew their bids in short order.
That left just Beijing and the mountainous and snowy Almaty, a city of nearly 1.5 million and Kazakhstan’s best hope of becoming the first Central Asian — and majority-Muslim — Olympic host. As The Associated Press wrote, Kazakhstan proposed to scale back the festivities from the eye-popping spectacle of Sochi. Infrastructure dating to the country’s days as a socialist Soviet republic would be pressed into service, and there would be a need for only one new edifice, officials said.
Andrei Kryukov, a former Olympic skater serving as vice chairman of Kazakhstan’s bid committee, expounded on this point to the AP, saying:
We’re not building some huge projects that won’t be of any use to anyone afterward, like a white elephant. We’ve got everything.
Everything, it turned out, except any tolerance for those who are members of the LGBT+ community. Kazakh officials had moved, in fact, to adopt an “anti-gay propaganda” law that was directly in conflict with the Olympic Charter’s prohibition against discrimination of any type.
But, it did have real snow and an eagerness to follow Bach’s “feasible and sustainable” cues to the letter.
Beijing, on the other hand, initially seemed a dark horse. With Pyeongchang, South Korea, tapped to host the 2018 Winter Games and Tokyo the 2020 Summer Games, a third Southeast Asian city surely faced a steep climb. Add to that China’s persistent problem with pollution, its lack of any winter sporting tradition, lingering animosity over tenant evictions in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, and Kazakhstan, despite its anti-gay bent, could be forgiven for liking its chances.
But, Beijing had Yao Ming.
The 7½-foot-tall former Olympic and professional basketball superstar personally promised the I.O.C. that a Beijing-hosted Winter Games would be an “athlete-centered” Winter Games, according to Time magazine. When Chinese officials vowed to expand the regional rail system and to endeavor to make cold-weather sports more popular nationwide, the race was over. In the end, the city, despite its well-documented flaws, seemed a natural choice, Bach insisted.
Oddly, though, “natural” didn’t figure into many of Beijing’s weak points in its bid: For example, the snow it would need to manufacture for many events at a significant cost (now and probably well into the future). Or its admitted lack of a winter-sport culture, when such activities are costly and likely beyond the means of many citizens.
Also, China isn’t off the human-rights hook any more than Kazakhstan can be said to be, with activists protesting that China remains in crisis on that point. Beijing has additionally started off on the wrong foot, by being accused of co-opting “Let It Go,” the signature song from the Disney movie “Frozen,” as its 2022 anthem.
But the I.O.C. has apparently shrugged off these snags, believing them to pale in comparison to the glory of Beijing making history as the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. And in the selection of Beijing over the frugal Almaty, there is a sense of the I.O.C. wishing to hedge its bets. As more cities turn up their noses at the opportunity to host the Games, the Committee has scrambled to make the prospect more palatable with its “feasible and sustainable” campaign.
Yet, in choosing Beijing, it is almost assured that the Olympics will be the large, showy and expensive spectacle that it has been in past years. Beijing has the desire, the manpower, the pedigree and, most important, the money to pull it off. This may represent the I.O.C.’s dream scenario: A city largely ecstatic to host the Games, and officials content to pour money into creating an unforgettable show without expressing buyer’s remorse or calling the I.O.C. out on what could be a disingenuous attempt at reform.
Should the 2022 Beijing Games prove as successful as the I.O.C. and China hope, the event may rise in prestige once more, prompting other cities to decide to toss caution to the wind and their hats into the ring.
But they would be well advised to keep in mind that many in Kazakhstan, fearing corruption and false promises, breathed a sigh of relief when the name called out was not Almaty. Not to mention the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Other would-be host cities may take the I.O.C. at its word that it wishes the Olympic Games to have a smaller footprint, and, accordingly keep a tight grip on the purse strings.