Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Cost of the Games

The Paralympic Winter Games disabled winter athletes begin in PyeongChang today, and once this Olympic event becomes a thing of the past, so will PyeongChang's Olympic stadium.  The South Korean town will demolish the stadium . . . and possibly several other venues built for the 2018 Winter Games as well.  The reason is obvious: A sports venue built to accommodate tens of thousands of people in a town too small to find on a map is unsustainable.   (An open-air stadium for Winter Olympic ceremonies? I remember a time when Winter Olympic ceremonies were held indoors.)  Once the Olympics are over, who's gong to use this stadium?  Olympic celebrations, winter and summer, have become like world's fairs, where much of everything built for them is taken down or abandoned afterwards. 
With the costs of staging the Olympics increasing into the billions, hosting the Games has become more of a burden than an honor.  Zeeshan Aleem has an excellent article from exploring this issue in greater depth, citing factors such as terrorism threats, debts incurred, and the impracticality of building venues that become unnecessary and too costly to maintain after the Olympics are over.  The disappointment of losing an Olympic bid has been replaced by relief in democratic countries where people refuse to spend so much money on an international sporting event, while more autocratic governments like in China and Russia spare no expense in staging an Olympiad over the objections of citizens who have no say in the matter.  After Chicago lost the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, conservative commentator Bill Kristol said that the U.S. didn't need the Olympics to enhance its prestige and standing.  He may have been on to something, because the prestige and standing Brazil gained came at a heavy price.  Remember when swimmer Katie Ledecky was in Rio seemingly breaking her own records every few hours?  Well, this is the building she did it in, the Rio de Janeiro Olympic aquatics stadium, as it appears today, the photograph appearing in Aleem's article.
An incredibly empty hulk.  Not exactly the economic catalyst for Rio promised by the Brazilian government.  Facilities built for the Rio Games clearly haven't helped the locals, and they haven't brought more tourists to city already known for tourism.  And if massive sports facilities are unsustainable for a city as big as Rio de Janeiro, how can we expect similarly big facilities to be sustainable for towns like PyeongChang?  
And as far as the Winter Olympics being a more intimate, cozy affair . . . anyone who saw any of the hockey games at PyeongChang and saw the long shots of the Gangneung Hockey Centre could have been forgiven for thinking it was as big as Madison Square Garden.  In fact, it's half as big - but still bigger than the Lake Placid arena the 1980 U.S. hockey team won their Olympic gold medal in.  Putting an arena like the Gangneung Hockey Centre in such a small town like PyeongChang is like building a Soldier Field-sized stadium in Grand Island, Nebraska.  But the Koreans had no choice.  The 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games was a twelve-day affair with 39 events and a thousand athletes from 37 countries, but the PyeongChang Winter Games lasted seventeen days, with 102 events and nearly three thousand athletes from 92 countries.  PyeongChang was an ideal place for the Winter Olympics thanks to its topography and climate, and it may indeed benefit from its ski slopes and its snowboarding facilities, but most of its Olympic facilities are too out of proportion in scale; its stadium may not be the only thing that faces the wrecker's ball.  By contrast, Beijing, with a population greater than even metropolitan New York, can certainly absorb the costs of new venues (the skiing and bobsledding events will be held way outside of town) and accommodating what has become a bigger sporting event.  However, winters in northeastern China are notorious for not having reliable snowfall for skiing, and there are concerns over the environmental impact of producing enough artificial snow.
Meanwhile, it's easy to romanticize places like St. Moritz, Innsbruck, and other small Winter Olympic towns of yore, and how low-key the Winter Games once were, but just remember - these small places are hubs for other winter-sport championships, especially skiing, they being popular winter resorts and all.  Coziness and intimacy take a back seat to tourists' money.  Non-Olympic and recreational winter sports may be quieter affairs in such places than the Winter Games, but the only time the locals in these towns get any serious peace is during the off-season.
The only way we're going to make the Winter Olympics the small, low-key affair they used to be is to move them back to leap years and quadrennially concurrent with the Summer Games, which would once again make them an afterthought, and get rid of some of the events, like trick skiing and trick snowboarding, which would offend thousands of athletes.  No one wants any of that.   As for the costs of staging the Summer Olympics . . . well, they've gotten so bad that, as Aleem notes, five cities started out bidding for the 2024 Games but only two - Paris and Los Angeles - stayed in the contest.  The International Olympic Committee, desperate to avoid the appearance of a lack of interest in the 2028 bidding, awarded the 2024 Games to one of the bidders for that year and awarded the 2028 Games to the other.  Paris goes first; apparently the IOC didn't want to take the risk of holding the 2024 Games in LA during what might be the final year of a two-term Trump Presidency.  And by the way, cost concerns are nothing new; Los Angeles was the only city other than Tehran to bid for the 1984 Summer Olympics due to lack of interest from other cities owing to the staggering costs of the 1976 Montreal Games, and LA got the 1984 Olympics by default when the Shah of Iran was deposed; in a nice bit of ironic symmetry, Iran's Islamic Republic boycotted the 1984 Olympics so as not to dignify its worst enemy, the United States . . . and the LA Games were the first privately funded Olympics to turn a profit.
It's obvious that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is going to have to find a way to economize and help cut the costs for staging the Games if it wants to give cities and countries an equal chance of hosting them and make the Olympics something that residents of host cities can look forward to, not dread.  Of course, if the folks on the IOC want to do the Olympics on the cheap . . . they can always have them at my house!
I'm sure I can get them guest passes at the community pool for the swimming events.  Sorry, no diving. 

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