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Why Rio's legacy could be a positive for the Olympic movement (+video)

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There are hints of a reckoning ahead on everything from costs to venues.

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    The closing ceremonies for Rio 2016 were a well-choreographed dance-fest and handoff to Japan for the Tokyo 2020.
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The story of Rio seems pretty simple, actually.

On the field and in the pool, the Rio Olympics were exultant – the last Olympic step of arguably the most remarkable sprinter in history, the last stroke of a swimmer who punctured the boundaries of fiction, and the runway for an impossibly airborne gymnast whose routines treated gravity with imperious disdain.

Off the field, they were Zika and sewage and green pools and Ryan Lochte.

“The contrast between Olympic field of play and the world just outside the fences has never been so great,” writes ESPN’s Bonnie Ford.

What is less certain is whether that is a bad thing.

Certainly, it is different. Even in Athens – the Olympics that previously held the unofficial record for most panic-inducing preparations – things mostly calmed down once the cauldron was lit.

It was only years later, when the bottom dropped out of the Greek economy, that the hulking husks of bygone Olympic grandeur became a source of international angst.

In Rio, the angst was everpresent – a tea kettle with the lid chattering ominously. Mr. Lochte’s story – both the initial (and false) harrowing tale of a brazen mugging and then the reaction to the gradual revelation of the more mundane truth – was proof that one eye was always off the sport, expecting the worst.

Wryly, Ms. Ford observes that “IOC president Thomas Bach has declared Rio’s absence of disaster a success.”

But in the world’s overinflated expectations of imminent Olympic apocalypse, there is a lesson.

Yes, Rio was not able to sanitize its chronic problems to the level that the International Olympic Committee demanded. But is that the best standard? Should the measure for a successful host city be that it successfully avert the world’s eyes from its most unsightly problems for an Olympic fortnight?

Athletes and visitors must be kept safe, of course. Despite setbacks, they generally were, by all indications.

If host cities cannot give the faintest whiff of struggling to meet almost impossible logistical challenges, then the IOC’s options will be very limited.

Already, one can imagine a great, red “X” being scratched over the bids from any cities in the developing world. Rio coped, but the IOC won’t like all the negative press.

Ironically, Rio may have proved that the Olympics are now too big to fail. After all, if Rio didn’t fail despite the legitimate and serious challenges it faced – from deep recession to a political crisis to the Zika virus – then who will?

No, the stakes of the Olympics have become so high that countries will spend billions they don’t have to avoid an international pie to the face.

But who wants that kind of hassle, really?

Fewer and fewer cities.

And that’s where Rio’s legacy could be an unequivocal positive for the world and the Olympic movement.

No thanks, we're busy that year

Rio has shown, in more crystalline clarity than any Games before, the reasons why hosting the Olympic Games is becoming an increasingly uninviting prospect.

This past year, the IOC chose Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. This despite the abundantly obvious fact that Beijing has neither a winter sports tradition nor winter sports venues.

Some of the events will be three hours away by train on the edge of the Gobi desert, where it is reported that snow is not plentiful. The alpine skiing venue will be created from scratch because none has ever existed there before.

The IOC was brought to this desperate decision by the fact that literally no one else in the world wanted to hold the Games except Almaty, Kazakhstan, a city that does not exactly conjure up images of five-star hotels and Olympic cachet. 

Among the cities that opted out after citizen pressure to withdraw: Oslo; Munich, Germany; Stockholm; St. Moritz, Switzerland; and Krakow, Poland. The United States did not even make a bid.

Among the IOC demands that turned Oslo sour, according to VG Sporten newspaper (with a translation offered by Slate):

  • A demand to meet the king before the opening ceremony, with a cocktail reception afterward paid for by the royal palace or the organizing committee.
  • The IOC president should be welcomed ceremoniously on the runway.
  • IOC members should have separate entrances and exits at the airport.
  • The hot food offered in the lounges at venues should be replaced at regular intervals, as IOC members might “risk” having to eat several meals at the same lounge during the Olympics.

Bidding for the Summer Olympics has remained more robust. But the United States Olympic Committee had to sheepishly withdraw Boston as its bid city for the 2024 Games after Bostonians loudly lobbied against having them. Hamburg, Germany, dropped out soon after, too.

The problem is not the product. Inevitably, host nations come to enjoy their own Games. On the final weekend, Brazil won gold medals in men’s soccer, volleyball, and beach volleyball – the trinity of Olympic sports that Brazilians care most about.

At last, the Olympics looked favorably on their hosts.

The problem is the expectation that hosting an Olympics is impossible without indulging in reckless financial behavior.

After vowing to rein in the size of the Summer Games to make them more “affordable,” the IOC just added five new sports for Tokyo 2020 – baseball, karate, skateboard, sports climbing, and surfing.

And then there’s the prestige factor. When Tokyo won its Olympic bid, it proposed a futuristic Olympic Stadium that looked vaguely like a deformed bicycle helmet – or the head of the monster from the “Predator” films.

But after the bill shot north of $2 billion, Tokyo scrapped the plan and settled on a modest, traditional Japanese design that will cost a mere $1 billion. 

“While much of [the Olympics’] growing cost has to do with the expansion of the games to include more of everything … it also has to do with the proliferation of prestige projects and engineering one-upmanship,” writes Clay Dillow of FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism website. “Grandiose architecture combined with a can’t-miss deadline leads to costly accelerated construction schedules, the costs of which are not reflected in the original bids.”

That is a different kind of failure, and one not limited to Rio.

There has been talk of permanent Olympic venues – perhaps Athens for the Summer Games and Oslo for the Winter – funded by the IOC. That option clearly holds little allure for the IOC.

But there are the hints of a reckoning ahead. Without reforms to rein in the Olympic movement’s sense of expectation and entitlement, the IOC’s options could continue to dwindle.

And for that, the world could say, “Thank you, Rio.”

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