Just say no when it comes to hosting the Olympics
It never figured to end well for Rio. Just hosting the Olympics took everything out of the city. Trying to recover from them may be impossible.
Nine months after hosting the world’s best athletes in a flawed — and mostly joyless — Olympics, Rio has little to show for the $12 billion effort. Arenas sit empty or boarded-up, the Olympic Park is vacant, and the city’s former mayor is being investigated for allegedly accepting $5 million in payments for construction projects tied to the games.
And now, even some of the medals presented to athletes are falling apart.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this when Rio won the first Olympics in South America in 2009, with a promise to showcase Brazil and its culture. Chicago was the odds-on favorite to get the games, but Rio organizers convinced IOC voters they could stage a historic Olympics.
“There was absolutely no flaw in the bid,” then IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said at the time of the vote.
This was before Zika made an appearance, one problem Olympic officials couldn’t be expected to foresee. But they knew the waters where sailors and rowers would compete were filthy, and should have known that promises to clean them up before the games wouldn’t be kept.
One look around Rio and they could have also figured out that $12 billion might have been better spent improving the conditions of the millions of impoverished Brazilians who crowd into the city’s infamous favelas.
That the Olympics are a bloated exercise in excess isn’t exactly a state secret. That they always cost more than originally estimated and are far more complicated by the time they go off is also well known to anyone who follows the Olympic movement even casually.
Those are issues that can be overcome in wealthy countries with unlimited resources. China and Russia proved that by staging Olympics that were successful on the surface, even if they lacked a little soul and — in Russia’s case — were marred by cheats both on the ice and in the doping lab.
But one thing Rio — and Athens before that in 2004 — proved is that the Olympics are much too big now to dump on countries that have to struggle to handle them.
The lesson seems to be sinking in, judged from the lack of serious bidders for the 2024 summer games. Paris and Los Angeles are the only two contenders left for those Olympics, after several other cities tested the waters and found them to be too rich for their tastes.
Even the two remaining bids — which will be voted on in September — envision games that will take place for the most part in existing facilities without huge costs for infrastructure. There’s no appetite anymore to build arenas and stadiums for 16 days of competition that have an uncertain future once the Olympic circus has folded up the tents and left town.
Actually, it’s hard to imagine any city wanting to host the Olympics at all. Yes, there’s a sense of civic pride to be able to host the world’s biggest sporting event, but as residents of Rio are finding out, there’s not much else.
A federal prosecutor in Brazil issued a report this week saying many of the Olympic venues are “white elephants” built with little regard for their future use. The Olympic Park is an expanse of empty arenas, while another cluster of venues in a poor area is closed despite plans to open it as a public park.
“There was no planning,” prosecutor Leandro Mitidieri told a public hearing on the Olympics. “There was no planning when they put out the bid to host the Games. No planning.”
The Rio Olympics themselves reflected that. They were chaotic and plagued by low attendance, dominated in the beginning by worries about Zika, dirty water and crime, and in the end by allegations of bribes and corruption.
The news hasn’t been good ever since, and now even the medals won by athletes are fading, too. More than 100 athletes from around the world have medals that are flaking and rusting, apparently because they weren’t coated properly.
Yes, Rio looked good on television during the Olympics. That made NBC and other broadcasters happy, even if those actually at the games didn’t get such a great experience.
As usual with the Olympics, though, looks aren’t everything.