The International Olympic Committee is having a bad month. No one wants to host the 2022 Olympics. The organisation’s obnoxious public haranguing has turned Rio into a media circus. Its World Cup counterpart, FiFA, is being investigated for insane bribery allegations. Ultimately, the IOC has no one to blame but itself. Can the Olympics be saved? Yes. But Rio’s going to have to do it alone.
Picture: AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Over the past several decades, the IOC has turned the Olympics into a cynical orgy of multi-billion-dollar development schemes and tightly-choreographed showmanship. “We have an image problem,” Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg told the Associated Press recently of Oslo’s uncertain bid for 2022. “People in Norway say we love the games but we hate the IOC.” And they’re not alone.
The ludicrous preparations for the Games now consistently overshadow the athletes and the competitions themselves. What do you remember about Sochi? What do you think you’ll remember about Rio? Odds are good it won’t be watching a triumph of sport. It will be how close they came to not happening in the first place.
In Rio, the disparity between what the IOC demanded of the city and what it can afford is growing. “Tourists: Don’t get sick. We have stadiums but we don’t have hospitals,” reads the graffiti in Rio, according to Bloomberg. As Rio’s citizens take to the streets to protest the cost of the $US11 billion World Cup this week, a much bigger bill is lurking on the horizon.
Demonstrators protest against money spent on the World Cup preparations. AP Photo/Leo Correa.
Only eight of the 29 venues Rio had to promise the IOC to cinch their bid are complete. Ten more are still under construction. The cost of building venues like the tennis center and velodrome have tripled in the time since Rio won its bid. In 2008, Rio estimated the Games would cost $US11.9 billion. According to analysts, that could balloon by 50 per cent as Rio struggles to finish the dozens stadiums, hotels, and infrastructure projects promised in its bid. Officials have announced the operating budget alone has increased by 27 per cent.
Meanwhile, the cost of hosting the Olympics is spiking across the board: The last 17 Olympic games,have over run by 179 per cent on average. But there is a solution to what the Olympics have become, and Rio is in the position to carry it out.
Last month, The Guardian‘s Simon Jenkins made a surprisingly compelling argument that Rio should call the IOC’s bluff and stage a vastly scaled-down “austerity games.” Rio is “desperately behind schedule,” reasoned Jenkins, and rather than push itself further into debt and public unrest, the city should make an appeal to common sense:
Brazil’s politicians could plead force majeur, call the IOC’s bluff and stage a slimmed down “austerity” games, as did Britain in 1948. They could abandon the unbuilt cluster at Deodoro, intended for events such as rugby, kayaking and mountain biking. They could cancel some of the IOC’s “toff” sports such as tennis, golf, sailing and equestrianism, as well as the absurdity of staging a second soccer competition just two years after this year’s World Cup. They could slash arena and stadium capacity to what it can already offer, and tell thousands of gilded IOC officials, sponsors and VIPs there will be no luxury apartments, limousines and private traffic lanes, just camping on Copacabana beach.
When London staged an “austerity games” in 1948, the city was too poor and broken in the wake of World War II to build new venues and stage massive development schemes. Instead, it housed visiting athletes in RAF camps, converted an existing greyhound racing track into a human track, and imposed other cost-saving measures. Funnily enough, those games were considered a “remarkable success,” and they even made London a huge profit.
The closing ceremony of the 1948 Olympics. Getty/Keystone.
Rio could take a similar path. It could find cheaper options for the venues still left to build. It could re-use spaces that already exist. It could trim all the unnecessary work of building apartments and private infrastructure for VIPs who apparently can’t lower themselves to the same level as the athletes and attendees. You wouldn’t need to go as far as Jenkins suggests — you can and should still hold all events — but excise enough of the pomp and you can finally focus on what’s truly important: The competitions themselves.
The idea might find a lot of support in Rio, where public approval for the Olympics is currently cratering. People are increasingly irate about the way the IOC (and local officials) has handled the preparations. “There’s a growing feeling that FIFA and the Olympic committee are taking the demanding parent act a bit too far,” argued Bralizian writer Vanessa Barbara in a great New York Times op-ed last week. “If they wanted punctuality, maybe they should have chosen the Germans or the Swiss to host their events. We Brazilians are slightly different.”
The IOC, meanwhile, has already said it won’t consider taking host duties away from Rio this late in the game. And even if it did take the 2016 back to London, it would be proving that the current model of host city selection is broken. The argument for giving the Olympics to a cycle of past host cities, which already have the necessary infrastructure in place, is a strong one. But the IOC has already claimed that it’s sticking with Rio. And in that case, this is the city’s chance to, in essence, tell the IOC to fuck off and run the games its own way.
Now is the time to appeal to common sense. To prove that the Olympics can function without breaking the banks of host cities. To prove that they don’t have to be a cluster of bad development economics and sickeningly wasteful construction projects. To prove that what the IOC has turned the Olympics into isn’t irreparable. That somewhere, buried beneath fuzzy maths and sponsorships, the soul of the games still exists.