Olympic Games Should Rotate From City to City

August 15, 2016 1:47 pm Last Updated: August 16, 2016 6:25 pm

This week and last in Rio de Janeiro, more than 11,000 athletes from 206 countries are participating in the Summer Olympics—306 events in 28 sports. At press time, the United States leads with 26 gold medals, but Usain Bolt of Jamaica probably eclipsed everyone with his 100-meter win over the weekend.

Last March, the International Olympic Committee announced the Refugee Olympic Athletes initiative, created to act as a symbol of hope and to bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, left, looks to Canada's Andre De Grasse after crossing the line during a men's 100-meter semifinal during the athletics competitions in the Olympic stadium of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt looks to Canada’s Andre De Grasse after crossing the line during a men’s 100-meter semifinal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 14. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Five refugees from South Sudan, where one in five people have been displaced since violent conflict began in 2013, were among those selected to compete as runners at the Rio Olympics. They are staying in the Olympic Village with the other athletes. Despite the tragedies they have faced, the young people will run, demonstrating the strength of the human spirit.

The games bring together elite athletes to compete on a global stage. Competition, heroics, and national pride give host nations an opportunity to showcase their countries to the world. However, they are also about large business. Host cities invest deeply with the hope of reaping sizable gains for the local and national economy through tourism, marketing, and other means.

The first documented Olympic champion was Coroebus, a cook from Elis, Greece, who won the sprint race in 776 B.C. By 728 B.C., two additional races had been added, comparable to the 400- and 1,500-meter races of the modern games.

The Olympics expanded to include wrestling, boxing, and the pentathlon, as well as specialized events for soldiers and heralds. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the second century B.C., the Roman Emperor Theodosius I ordered the abolition of the Olympics in A.D. 393.

Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. (Wikimedia/CC BY-SA)
Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. (CC BY-SA)

At a conference in Paris in 1894, Pierre de Coubertin convinced delegates from nine countries to stage an Olympic revival by holding the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. The 1908 London Games drew more than 2,000 athletes from 22 nations to compete in 100 events. In 1916, there were no games because of World War I. At the 1928 Amsterdam Games, more than 290 women participated, double the number in 1924. The games were suspended again for 12 years because of World War II.

The post-war era saw steady growth in the number of countries and athletes competing and a dramatic increase in women’s events. However, politics intruded in serious ways at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Successfully using the Olympics as advertisement can result in a tourism boom with financial rewards. The challenge is hosting the games without going bankrupt.

Successfully using the Olympics as advertisement can result in a tourism boom with financial rewards. The challenge is hosting the games without going bankrupt.

Once selected, the host city partners with government and private enterprise to undergo the financially risky process. Municipal and state decision-making must approve financing for construction projects. Some of these projects are needed improvements to the city’s infrastructure, so hosting the Olympics may catalyze their undertaking.

However, the best-laid plans can result in skyrocketing costs. Long after the closing ceremonies, some host cities and countries end up taking large net losses on their investments.

Olympic Game hosts that have come close to breaking the bank include Athens 1896, Paris 1924, Montreal 1976, Lake Placid 1980, Albertville 1992, Nagano 1998, Sydney 2000, Athens [again] 2004 [which may have precipitated the 2009 economic crisis], Turin 2006, and Vancouver 2010.

Other host cities have reported better outcomes. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics is cited as a model of reasonable success because it finished with a $233 million surplus. However, the calculation includes only direct costs of staging the games and not the indirect costs provided by city, state, and federal governments.

The same is true for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Organizers of these games claimed multimillion-dollar surpluses, but they did not include massive federal spending when adding up costs.

Beijing supposedly profited by $126 million from its 2008 Olympics. However, since then, the structures have been mostly unused. Moreover, the human costs were not included. The party-state in Beijing displaced 1.5 million people to make room for the stadiums and infrastructure.

Torchbearers turn to salute the crowd after lighting the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. (Gray Mortimore/Getty Images)
Torchbearers turn to salute the crowd after lighting the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. (Gray Mortimore/Getty Images)

Barcelona ran up a debt to host the 1992 Games, but the city’s image gained enormously, tourism flourished, and there was favorable development. Since it experienced a long-term benefit, Barcelona is often cited by Olympic promoters.

It is possible that proactive, efficient governments in potential-laden cities could use the Olympics to boost their fortunes. PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018 and Tokyo, Japan, in 2020 seem well-suited for the challenge.

More than a century after the Olympic flag’s creation, the Olympic symbol of five interlocking rings still represents the union of the five continents and the meeting of the athletes of the world at the Olympic Games. If feasible, we should continue to honor the idealism of the games by continuing the rotation of venues on the five continents.

David Kilgour

David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”

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