By announcing Paris and Los Angeles as the hosts of the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympic Games, respectively, the International Olympic Committee confirmed at their congress in Lima what many Olympic aficionados had known for a long time. Unlike the heart-stopping moments of brilliance we associate with the Olympics, there was no competition. Paris and Los Angeles had survived longest in a bidding process that had seen numerous cities pull out of the process following pressure from grassroots opponents of Olympic bids. With so few potential candidates for the 2024 Games, the IOC decided to pin Los Angeles down to hosting the 2028 Games to save the potential embarrassment of not having a host.
Boston, initially the US Olympic Committee’s preferred host city, dropped out before the race had even begun after an impressive campaign of grassroots resistance. Hamburg held a referendum on hosting the Olympics, with citizens decisively rejecting the Games. Rome elected an anti-Olympic Mayor who subsequently withdrew that city’s candidature. In Budapest, political support for the bid fell away sharply as voters scrutinised proposals, leading to withdrawal. The Winter Games have fared no better, with a plethora of cities dropping out from the last round of bidding, leaving the IOC forced to choose a host city with no snow for 2022.
— Prof Bent Flyvbjerg (@BentFlyvbjerg) September 21, 2016
Why? The answer is surprisingly simple: there are tangible drawbacks for host cities including humungous costs and the degradation of human rights through evictions and militarisation, to be weighed against mostly ephemeral benefits about pride and inspiration. From a policy perspective, as citizens and mayors of countless cities around the world have decided, hosting the Olympics is a terrible decision.
Rio de Janeiro serves a graphic reminder of everything that can go wrong. The so-called “wonderful city” was ravaged by hosting the Olympic Games. Schools, hospitals and even policing were underfunded as the Olympics sucked money from government budgets during Brazil’s worst recession in over a century. The State University of Rio de Janeiro, once the fifth best university in Brazil and a key driver of social justice, has been closed due to a lack of funding. Often, the burden has fallen on those who can least afford it, residents of Rio’s favelas who see “pain, death, and despair” as their Olympic legacy.
Tokyo, due to host the next Summer Games in 2020, provides little aid for those searching for a reason to host the Games. Preparations for the Olympics have already been accused of violating the right to housing for poor and elderly residents. Budgets are spiralling out of control, exactly as is repeatedly predicted by leading economists of mega-events such as Andrew Zimbalist and Bent Flyvberg.
The Olympics are a prime example of what Jules Boykoff calls Celebration Capitalism: property developers and investors get filthy rich off the backs of the poor while those of us who might normally object are swept along in the bright lights of sporting glamour. During the contest to host the 2024 Games, however, activists around the world have successfully placed the murky underworld of Olympic hosting in the spotlight.
In Paris, activists have raised objections about the inadequacy of the proposed Olympic budget, which ignores security spending and pushes money toward white elephant stadia even as the government considers cutting health, education and transport budgets. Any infrastructure benefits brought by Olympic investment, activists perceptively note, will serve the interests of the opaque, tax-exempt Swiss-based IOC, not Parisians. This will all happen with no choice given to Parisians: their voices will be marginalised and new laws limiting free expression and sweeping aside environmental protections will be passed.
The story is frighteningly similar in Los Angeles, where opponents of the Games have criticised massive spending on elite sport during a housing crisis. Fears of police brutality and spiralling housing prices have been routinely overlooked by the city council. Mayor Eric Garcetti has refused to make Los Angeles a sanctuary city, as hosting the Olympics will require him to cooperate with the Federal government, thus giving President Trump an unlikely ally in deeply liberal California.
— NOlympics LA (@NOlympicsLA) August 22, 2017
In the late 1970’s, the IOC faced a similar dearth of willing host cities following terrorism in Munich (1972) and eye-watering debt accrued in Montreal (1976). Los Angeles rode to the rescue in 1984, persuading the IOC to change their strict rules for host cities, rewarding them by posting the only profit ever recorded by an Olympic host. In doing so, LA 1984 transformed the Olympics into a thoroughly neoliberal event. Cities began queuing up to host the world’s premier sporting event again. All was well for the IOC.
Los Angeles’s current bid, and to a lesser extent Paris’, has played to this potential to transform the Olympics for the next Olympic Games. As Jules Boykoff points out, “the Olympics need Los Angeles and Paris much more than either city needs the Olympics”, yet politicians seem unwilling to extract further concessions from the IOC, which extends its tax-exempt status to sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Samsung while contributing a relatively meagre proportion of the cost of hosting the event.
The much-vaunted concessions LA politicians secured in exchange for agreeing to host the Games four years later than planned is a case in point. The IOC agreed to provide an additional $300 million dollars of broadcast and sponsorship revenues to the cost of hosting, compared to Paris. Considering London 2012 cost British taxpayers over $30 billion dollars, this relatively meagre $300 million dollars is unlikely to make the difference between profit and deficit.
While there may be potential for these cities to transform the Olympics, it is unlikely they will make them better for host populations in the long-run. Being the only city prepared to host the Games does allow organisers to demand concessions from the IOC. But the Olympic problems of cost overruns, evictions, militarisation and environmental destruction are not likely to go away unless politicians make much bolder demands. In what could be regarded as an unfortunate tautology, any city which values its citizens, environment and budget enough to truly transform the Olympics for the better, would be unwilling to bid for the event in the first place under the current rules.
Adam Talbot is a doctoral researcher at the University of Brighton. His research focuses on social movements and Rio 2016. His wider interests include urban politics, mega-events, Latin America and human rights. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamTalbotSport