How to Fix the Olympics
The Olympics this year are a mess. I can confidently state that because they are always a mess. And there's a simple solution that has been repeatedly proposed, but which no one seems to want to act on.
But honestly, if it wasn't this, it would be something else. The Rio games face a whole list of problems, including trash floating in the waterways that will be used for competitions and the little fact that Brazil just suspended its president on charges of corruption.
An infectious disease outbreak is almost a refreshing change from the miasma of corruption and incompetence that usually surrounds the Olympics, for which the Sochi game two years ago set a new record.
The fact is that the Olympics are always a disaster. They are always mismanaged, there are always stories of corruption, and they almost always need to be saved by some super-manager brought in from the private sector at the last minute. (That was Mitt Romney in 2002.)
Most of all, the Olympics are always an economic disaster for the host country. The requirements of the event—the sheer number and size of the arenas and sporting venues, the huge crowds that need to be accommodated—dwarf the ordinary needs of any one city. But to get the hosting gig, cities are encouraged to compete over who will spend the most to build the biggest and most lavish facilities. This guarantees the creation of mausoleums of sport that will stand mostly empty for decades to come.
The Olympics are also frequently tied up in some bad geopolitics, which is increasingly driven by the enormous cost. The 2022 Olympics had only two bidders, China and Kazakhstan, both dictatorships. After all, the leaders of free countries (like Norway, which withdrew) have to face the wrath of voters when they drastically overspend, while dictators have no limits on how much of their subjects' money they can waste. And they have a much greater need for the puffed-up sense of "prestige" that comes from hosting the games.
This leads some people to turn against the games themselves. But the athletic competition is not the problem. The problem is that the athletic competition has been saddled with the pomp and circumstance of a kind of World's Fair. But the old world's fairs at least knew that they were temporary exhibits and were made to be knocked down as soon as the guests left town.
All of this can be avoided by one simple measure, a reform that would go back to the ancient roots of the games.
Do you know where the Ancient Greeks held their Olympic games? In Olympia. That's how it got the name. And do you know how long they held the games there? Every four years for about 1200 years.
Maybe we should take a clue from that and hold the Olympics at a single permanent venue. No more shifting around from city to city, building pretty much the same multi-billion-dollar sports complex from scratch over and over. Build it once and keep using it again and again and again.
Where should we build this complex? I've got a simple idea. Wait for it...Olympia.
The Ancient Greeks chose Olympia because it was a rural temple site, used only for religious purposes, so that it was not part of the conflicts between rival cities. That made it a perfect location for everyone to put aside their differences every four years and compete in neutral territory. Greece itself pretty much fits that bill today. It hasn't been a central player in world affairs since the end of the Byzantine Empire.
This also implies, by the way, where we should build the permanent venue for the Winter Olympics: Switzerland, which hosted the second and fifth winter games.
I know your first objection. Sure, we can trust the Swiss to run their games with typical efficiency. But a permanent venue in Olympia would mean pouring billions of dollars into the weak and chaotic Greek economy. Then again, the European Union is already doing that. At least this way we could all get something tangible in return.
On a more serious note, the International Olympic Committee would have a lot of leverage with the Greek government to set its own terms, get plenty of waivers from crazy Greek regulations, and keep the government looting to a minimum. After all, they could always just threaten to go back to the old system of the traveling Olympic circus and leave Greece with a giant useless venue to take care of.
To be fair, this assumes that the IOC would be less corrupt and inefficient than Greece itself, which is not entirely clear. But even if the project still involves some waste and corruption, that would be balanced by some very significant economies.
First of all, the entire venue—the vast track and field arenas, swimming pools, volleyball courts, equestrian fields, and so on, not to mention the hotels, restaurants, broadcast studios, and all the rest—all of it could be built once. Or rather, because these facilities will run down with use and become outdated, the project could be built and rebuilt in stages. After every games, a handful of structures could be designated to be rebuilt or remodeled to update them, so that the whole venue gets totally refreshed on, say, a forty-year cycle. Which, in theory, would cost about one tenth as much as doing the whole thing from scratch every four years.
Moreover, there is no reason the permanent Olympic park would need to stand completely idle in between. It would certainly attract athletes seeking to gain practice and experience on the exact venues that will be used for the games. But it could also become a permanent athletic theme park, the Disneyworld of obscure sports.
As for the original purpose of rotating host countries to promote international understanding—or, more realistically, to provide an outlet for the preening pride of the host countries—that could be channeled into a permanent world's fair on the same model as Epcot, with each country hosting a pavilion meant to show off its distinctive cuisine, art, music, architecture, and history. And why not take another cue from Disney and add a giant zoo with animals from all around the world? Make the permanent Olympic venue into an attraction that can still bring in crowds—and revenue—in between games. In fact, I'd be happy just give the entire project to Disney, because those people know how to run a park. That sounds better than deciding, every two years, to give this kind of project to people who have never done it before.
Every proposal has its downsides, but a permanent venue would minimize the biennial Olympic mess. It could save many billions of dollars in waste and corruption and spare us the preening of self-important and often tyrannical political leaders.
Which, come to think of it, is probably why it will never be allowed to happen.