Why are Olympic bids increasingly unpopular?

Budapest, Hungary, ended its bid on Wednesday, citing a lack of public unity. The move left Paris and Los Angeles as the only 'survivors' of a previously crowded pool of potential candidates.

Laszlo Balogh/Reuters/File
The Hungarian Parliament is seen with the Olympic logo at a promotional spot as the Hungarian capital bids for the 2024 Olympic Games in central Budapest, Hungary in January. The city withdrew its bid on Wednesday after a referendum rejected the move.

Another city has turned its back on hosting the 2024 Summer Olympic Games: Budapest of Hungary on Wednesday ended its bid, citing a lack of unified public support. The move left Paris and Los Angeles as the only “survivors” of a previously crowded pool of potential candidates.

Some may say Budapest’s withdrawal did not come as a surprise – the Central European city had always been a long-shot candidate. Yet, after a series of cities decided against the Games over concerns over their massive public costs in recent years, Budapest’s bowing out once again highlights the growing dilemma the International Olympic Committee (IOC) faces in making the Games an international event but also affordable one for host cities.

One year before Budapest's parliamentary elections, the city’s Olympic bid had become a key political issue. “The Momentum Movement,” a new political group opposing the bid, cited the huge costs and possible political corruption that could arise from hosting the Games. The movement collected more than 266,000 signatures in 30 days and forced a referendum that resulted in the city’s withdrawal, which came months after other cities, including Boston, Hamburg, and Rome, all dropped out from the race, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.

“Starting about over the last decade or so, we've had a whole series of extremely expensive events, $45 billion in Beijing, $51 billion in Sochi for the Winter Games, $13 billion at least for Rio,” sport economist Victor Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross tells the Monitor. “And in the wake of these surging costs, we in the last bidding cycle of both Winter and Summer have seen cities now starting to abandon the Olympics on mass.”

The expenses in operations, construction of venues, and building of transportation infrastructure and hospitality have been the three key factors that are holding cities back, according to Professor Matheson, who has co-authored a study of the economics of the Olympics.

Though Los Angeles and Barcelona might be the exceptions, overbuilding of the venues, which cost billions to build but are not appropriate for day-to-day use by citizens after the Games end, have been a major concern and risk for hosting cities, Matheson says.

“You have huge venue costs – those can easily run into the billions of dollars,” he says. “The problem is with the Olympics, most of the venues that need for the Olympics are not things you use particularly after the events.”

Another reason for the decline in interest might lie at the unpopularity of the events’ governing body. Writer Andrew Jennings of The Nation argued in 2014 that the IOC, whom he called “ideal candidates for a perp walk" and has overseen the bidding process like “an elaborate, bribe-tainted courting ritual,” he wrote.

Yet, despite the rocky path in recent years, bidding for the Olympics was something else before, when Olympic Games’ “scope and grandeur” was still an appeal, not a financial burden.

“It was popular to bid back to the ‘70s, until we had a couple of financial and other political disasters,” Matheson says, naming instances such as the Israeli athletes massacre in 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, the huge economic loss in 1976 in Montreal, and the Olympic boycott in 1980.

These incidents, while shaping how future host cities handle security and budgeting, led to Los Angeles being the only bidder and winner of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, according to Matheson. As Los Angeles hosted a successful and profitable Olympics in 1984 – using its existing infrastructure built for previous games, the largest international athletic event saw another surge of bidders, including an outpouring of participants from developing countries, until the early 2000s.

Facing the critiques of increasing high costs, the IOC has also come up with a new initiative to promote less lavish events. Through the “Olympic Agenda 2020,” the IOC hopes to reduce costs for bidding and put the focus on building a project that fits into each host country’s long-term needs, according to the program’s website.

But as Rio faced massive concerns over its financial debts from hosting the 2016 Olympic Games, another idea has surfaced – “a semi-permanent home” for the Olympics. As the Monitor noted in August, this suggestion is not new: An intense dismay about the corruption in the process had led some to propose such a solution. Yet, it contradicts the intention of the site-selection process, IOC said.

"Every city that hosts the Olympic Games becomes a temporary steward of the Olympic Movement," Jacques Rogge, former president of the IOC, said in 1999. "Each has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to showcase the celebration of the human spirit. And each creates a unique set of environmental, social and economic legacies that can change a community, a region, and a nation forever.”

While Matheson supports the one-site strategy, saying it helps avoid building unnecessary stadiums, he says the non-financial incentives, including the “Olympic legacy” would still drive cities to compete for an opportunity to host.

“One might be city pride,” he says. “Obviously the reason China bid in 2008 was as a symbol that China has arrived as a great economic power in the world.”

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