8/3/15

Olympics Makeover Plan

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Boston's abrupt withdrawal of its Olympics bid has, thus far, unleashed more handwringers and satirists than serious thinkers. The Boston Globe's Farah Stockman is the latest to unsheathe her satirical sword. Fair enough: I milked the issue for some cheap humor of my own. But Ms. Stockman's swipe at the Lords of the Rings also contained a suggestion that I've been pushing for years: return the summer games to Athens on a permanent basis. It's not only a good idea; it may be the only way to restore anything resembling the intended spirit of the games.

I am not so na├»ve as to believe that the Olympics will return to the amateur ideals that sparked Pierre de Coubertin to reinstitute an updated version of the ancient Greek games in 1896. I am rather certain, though, that the Modern Olympics have now drifted so far from any sort of idealism that they are just another sporting event insofar as non-participants are concerned. Let's start with the fact that the Olympics were supposed to celebrate individual glory, not nationalism. All the medal count nonsense is the antithesis of Coubertin's hope that the Olympics would defuse nationalism. When you hear people chant "USA! USA! USA!" you should weep, not celebrate. What happened to the days when Americans could fall in love with someone like Romania's Nadia Comaneci, Russia's Olga Korbut, the Czech Emil Zatopek, Britain's Kelly Holmes, or Finland's Paavo Nurmi? Like future organizations such as the United Nations or the Fulbright Program, the Olympics were supposed to promote peace by emphasizing our shared humanity. Blame Carter, blame the Soviet, blame whomever—the "Who won the Olympics?" crap has worn out its welcome. Where better to return to idealism than Athens, the Western birthplace of democracy and standards of personal and public excellence? 
What the IOOC doesn't want you to think about: Athens 2015

But even if we put aside idealistic abstractions, it's clear that the Olympics cannot continue to be boons for developers and busts for taxpayers. The games have become examples of what Yale American studies professor Dolores Hayden calls "ballpork," the building of massive sports venues subsidized by public money for the profit of private investors. Olympics promoters descend like carrion birds and make one outlandish promise after another about how the games will benefit a host city, but here's the reality:

·      A short-term construction boom of 14-16 months followed by massive layoffs once venues are completed. Winners: investors playing with other people's money. Losers: workers and taxpayers.
·      A boom for local hotels and restaurants during the two weeks the games are in session. In many cases, though, the expected windfall encourages overbuilding and overinvestment that go belly-up. Winners: Lenders. Losers: Borrowers.
·      Temporary low-wage jobs during the games that disappear when the torch is extinguished. Winners: Vendors. Losers: Workers.
·      Cost projections that are woefully understated. This is the biggest scam of all. The International Olympics Organizing Committee (IOOC) expects a promise that the host city will cover any financial overruns. This was precisely the proviso that led Boston to bow out. (Such promises are also unrealistic in modern democracies. Name a city so awash in cash that its politicians can glibly put taxpayers at risk.) Winner: IOOC powerbrokers. Losers: Tab holders.
·      A lot of needed infrastructure improvements, but also a whole lot of venues that have no purpose once the games end. (Who needs a velodrome or a bobsled run?) What's left that 's usable often requires further expenditures for conversion (an Olympic village, for example). It costs a lot to maintain an empty facility, and a pretty penny to tear it down. Winners: Real estate developers and demolition firms. Losers: City budgets and residents in decaying areas.

It makes financial sense to designate Athens as a permanent home. Build one velodrome, use it for an international meet or two in non-Olympics years, and renovate for the games themselves. Ditto gymnastics venues, pugilism arenas, archery layouts, and other such seldom-used facilities.

Here's how to get the ballporkers and IOOC mobsters to buy in: shift the emphasis from the once-in-a-lifetime-greet-the-world Olympics to ongoing, but humbler-in-scale events. The United States could, for example, build training centers that provided steady use and predictable income. What if, for example, the ballporkers spread the money around: Iowa for wrestling facilities, Texas as an Olympian shooters' training ground, Los Angeles for track and field athletes, Boston for rowers, Detroit for boxers, Ann Arbor for swimmers, etc. Repeat across the globe.

Now imagine these places occasionally hosting regional events such as the Pan-American, the All-Africa, the Pacific, and other such games. These are far cheaper than the Olympics, encourage ongoing improvements, and make investments more than a one-time gamble on a risky roulette wheel. If the IOOC ever really got its act together—hey, I'm dreaming large here—it would also partner with sports federations to hold occasional world championships events in Athens in non-Olympics years. For example, the Union Cycliste International could converge upon Athens in 2021, the FINA swimming championships in 2022, the gymnasts world cup in 2023, and so on. It would have the added bonuses of allowing champion athletes to familiarize themselves with the venues before the games and give the world bodies of respective sports a way a to contain costs every third year. As for getting investors on board, just remind them that TV revenue is way more important than ticket sales or a once-very-four-years building boom.

Athens 2004: What it could be every four years!
Athens as a permanent Olympics site simply makes a lot of logistical and financial sense. It would go a long way to deflecting petty nationalism, saving a bundle, breaking the autocratic hold of the IOOC, and ending the ballpork extortion racket. If the last four sound idealistic, so be it: Greece was also the birthplace of classical philosophy.

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