If Friday night’s opening ceremony in the Maracaña Stadium goes off the way opening ceremonies always do, we’ll quickly forget that the Rio de Janeiro Games have looked for months like a slow-approaching trainwreck. The agita about unfinished facilities and sporteaucratic graft will give way to the spectacle of international pageantry and the drama of the track, the pool, and the arena. We’ll tune in to the show. All will seem well.
But in two or four or six years, Rio’s inhabitants and leaders will feel a different kind of afterglow. Brazil, which is weathering its worst recession in more than a century, has spent $12 billion in public and private funds on the kind of mega-event that an increasingly loud chorus of economists and other experts argue is a straight-up boondoggle for most host cities and their citizens. Countries often build expensive stadiums that become either relics or pricey giveaways to professional sports franchises. Taxpayers are often on the hook if the games wind up in debt. The Olympics displace residents from neighborhoods that get bulldozed. They might repel as much, if not more, tourism than they generate, and the long-term exposure benefits are just as arguable. And despite recent International Olympic Committee reforms, it still costs a fortune just to bid for the Olympics. It’s no wonder Oslo and Boston dropped out of contention for future games: The places willing to plunk down the astronomical costs of hosting an Olympics, it seems, are increasingly those that don’t have to bother consulting their citizens.
Although plenty of Olympiads, like Barcelona and Sydney, have been praised as PR coups for their hosts, just two have reportedly made a profit: the 1932 and 1984 Los Angeles Games, the latter of which made extensive use of existing infrastructure from the former. Los Angeles is bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics, and thanks to reforms the IOC put in place in response to the 2022 debacle—after Oslo dropped out, Beijing (the eventual “winner”) and Almaty, Kazakhstan, were the only two cities in contention to host the Winter Olympics—it will be able to pitch the extensive re-use of existing facilities. But there’s no guarantee such a plan will win Los Angeles its third Olympic Games.
Seen through this lens, the Olympics aren’t a gift to their host cities but a cruel trick that’s perpetrated on them. Luckily, there’s an easy fix: Vancouver should host the Olympics. All of them.
This idea of a permanent Olympic host city is not a new one. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, recently endorsed installing the Olympics in Athens. Greece’s economy could surely use the boost (though the 2004 Athens Games contributed billions to Greece’s debt woes). Others have suggested that Olympia, which hosted the ancient Olympics for 12 centuries, ought to house at least the Summer Games. John Rennie Short, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has studied the urban impacts of hosting the Olympics, has made the case for establishing an Olympic island—ideally off the coast of Greece—as a Vatican-like city-state for international sports.
When I called up Short and asked him to explain himself, he stressed an island was just one suggestion for the Summer Games; he said he could also imagine an arrangement in which the Winter Games rotated between two or three well-equipped cities. His bigger point, he says, is that the current bidding system has inflated cities’ expected investment in the games, so that tangible benefits (infrastructure improvements, economic jolts) and nontangible improvements (national happiness and pride) are almost surely not worth the outlays. “You cannot have a fair system if you have the bidding system,” he says. “It allows cities to outbid each other with more lavish games. How do you [fix] that? You make it so there are only two permanent sites. … I thought an island would be useful—a non-national unit.” The IOC brings in billions by selling the games’ broadcast rights. Short figures it could raise the money for its city-state by selling bonds on its expected future revenues and eventually use the site “as an international convention center of sorts, serving as a gathering hub for arts and culture as well as sports.”
In Circus Maximus, his authoritative recent book on the pitfalls of mega-events like the Olympics and World Cup, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist acknowledges the notion of a permanent Olympic site but (probably rightly) dismisses it as a political nonstarter. The notion of relocating the games to Athens, he writes, “is not an awful idea, but too many nations would object to the idea of not having the opportunity to host the games, and the internationalist image of the Olympics might suffer.” Still, he agrees there’s no reason we need to have an itinerant Olympics. If we did install the games somewhere permanently, he’d pick a city in a more developed country, one that has “pretty much all of the venues”—Los Angeles, for example. The IOC could house athletes in UCLA dorms as a further cost-saver, and while the security expenses would remain hefty, at least L.A. would be able to learn from experience. Right now, host cities have to devise logistics from scratch every two years, but “if you do it in the same city over and over again, you tend to perfect it.”
Presumably, hosting the games would become tiring for Angelenos. “If you were to give L.A. permanent status, it wouldn’t be to the United States’ benefit,” Zimbalist says. “You’d be doing the Olympics a favor.”
That’s why the Olympics should relocate to a city that won’t just relieve the rest of the world of hosting duties for the Summer Games but of the Winter Games, too. It would have to be a place with the right climate. It would have to be a place that could afford it. It should possess something of an international flavor. It should have a proven track record. It should be located in a democratic country but not a hegemonic one. It should be Vancouver.
Four years after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the group that organized the games reported no debts, with revenues and expenses each amounting to a rather thrifty $1.9 billion. (Remember: Sochi’s Winter Games cost more than $40 billion.) The venues constructed for the event remain in use, thanks in part to a trust established in advance by the city. The decorations were minimal—that was the right, recessionary look less than two years after the global financial crisis, and it will remain the right look given that the Olympics have too long been suffocated by extravagance. The hometown newspaper of Vancouver’s neighbor/rival to the south, Seattle, called the hosts “gracious” and the event a “national triumph.” We would all be lucky to be invited to visit Vancouver every two years.
Yes, a Summer Olympics costs more than a winter one. But Vancouver has shown it can be a responsible developer of the necessary infrastructure and a dependable manager of the games. John Furlong, the CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Committee, made a boast that should warm the hearts of microeconomists the world over: “This is, to me, very good for the Canada brand of being reliable, being trustworthy, keeping your promises, being on time and on budget, being responsible about the things that really matter to the public.”
Reliable, Trustworthy, On Time. It's not exactly Citius, Altius, Fortius, but that's a new Olympic motto sports fans, economists, and Canadians should all embrace.