Friday, April 21, 2017

Foreigners and the Olympics

Let’s face it, hosting summer or winter Olympics is hideously expensive. Sure, the impacted communities generate massive additional revenues to local businesses; local infrastructure and hospitality capacity often get a boost, and more than a few new competitive venues get added. Television monies are pretty good as well. But having all those new buildings is not always good. For nations that truly do not need these additional competitive sites – like the above abandoned beach volleyball stadium from the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, noting that even some of China’s recent Olympic venues are in a state of decay – much of this construction is simply a waste. The recent competition in Brazil saw a nation caught with cash shortages and unexpected delays resulting in a not-quite-finished set of competitive stadia and supporting structures. Overages have become quite the norm, it seems.
“Sports-related costs for the Summer Games since 1960 is on average USD 5.2 billion and for the Winter Games USD 3.1 billion. This does not include wider infrastructure costs like roads, urban rail, and airports, which often cost as much or more than the sports-related costs. The most expensive Summer Games are London 2012 at USD 15 billion and the most expensive Winter Games are Sochi 2014 at USD 21.9 billion, again including only sports-related costs. Costs per athlete is on average USD 0.6 million for the Summer Games and USD 1.3 million for the Winter Games. For London 2012, cost per athlete was USD 1.4 million; for Sochi 2014, USD 7.9 million.
“Budget overruns are common for the Games. Average overrun for Games since 1960 is 156% in real terms, which means that actual costs turned out to be on average 2.56 times higher than the budget that was estimated at the time of winning the bid to host the Games. Montreal 1976 had the highest cost overrun for Summer Games, and for any Games, at 720%; Lake Placid 1980 had the highest cost overrun for Winter Games, at 324%. London 2012 had a cost overrun of 76%, Sochi 2014 of 289%.” Wikipedia. Whew! Which means that economic realities have become vastly more important in determining where the Olympics can be played.
For richer communities, which already have a number of available sports facilities and stadia, the burden is obviously more tolerable. We are increasingly watching smaller, less affluent nations, back out of what were initial efforts to garner the international prestige associated with hosting an Olympic competition, particularly the ability to showcase national cultural excellence to the world. Beijing and London took advantage of this opportunity in 2008 and 2012 respectively, presenting some of the most opulent opening and closing ceremonies the world had ever seen. On the other hand in 2016, Rio de Janeiro may have created some negative perceptions as it didn’t quite live up to expectations.
But as bidding for the 2024 summer Olympics opened up, the countries/cities willing to bear the expected financial burden dwindled rapidly. “With Budapest pulling out of the competition in February, citing disapproval from Hungarian citizens, only Los Angeles and Paris are left in the running.” Mary Pilon writing for The New Yorker, April 17th.
There is probably nothing more open, friendly and international that an Olympics. But with terrorism threats, the additional cost for needed security and the escalating trend towards limiting people entering countries where that threat is perceived as particularly high, isn’t strange that the two countries left in the bidding process – France and the United States – have become two of the most recently openly hostile countries to foreign travelers crossing their borders?
“There’s a certain irony to this endgame: the two remaining host countries have a President, in one case, and a strong Presidential candidate, in the other, who for many symbolize the opposite of global friendship. Donald Trump made the notions of ‘America First’ and closing the borders themes of his Inauguration address. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, has opposed her country’s membership in the European Union. (The French Presidential election begins on April 23rd.) Like Trump, Le Pen has expressed a desire to curb immigration and return her country to its nationalist roots. Both use pugnacious language that’s far from the flowery, idealistic prose favored by the Olympic movement.
“That these countries are the last ones standing is not surprising given the lack of competition. So anemic is the host-city bidding process that leaders of the International Olympic Committee met last month, in South Korea, to establish a panel to examine rewriting the Olympic charter and award a 2024-2028 double bid to Los Angeles and Paris, partially, people familiar with the process said, to spare the I.O.C. the humiliation of another lackluster round of bidding. Only two cities stepped up to host the 2022 Winter Games—Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. (Snowless Beijing won, and will spend nearly ninety million dollars on ‘water-diversion schemes,’ according to the Economist.)…
“The stakes for the U.S. winning and staging a successful Olympic Games feel particularly high. Americans have not hosted the Olympics since 2002, when the Winter Games were held in Salt Lake City. (The last American Summer Olympics was held in Atlanta, in 1996.) A bid to host the 2016 Summer Games in Chicago suffered a humiliating defeat. U.S. Olympic officials have recently been successful inrepairing relationships with I.O.C. members, largely due to a new agreement regarding revenue sharing for broadcast rights.
“But Trump’s policies have created new tension: Will the already staggering logistics of bringing some eleven thousand athletes from more than two hundred countries to American soil be complicated by Trump’s (still unenforceable) executive order barring citizens from some Muslim-majority countries? The I.O.C.’s host-city contract requires all athletes be allowed in the country for the duration of the Games, regardless of what host leaders may think.
“Trying to understand the psyche of I.O.C. voters is akin to getting inside a papal conclave: there are no exit polls or public discussions, and voting takes place behind closed doors. Much of the electorate is made up of European men, with a few sheikhs and royal-family members—an élite set that is far less likely to be interested in the implications of Trump’s Presidency than many of the citizens he governs. It’s also possible that Trump may not be in office by the time the Games are set to be hosted.
“In a February radio interview with Westwood One, Trump endorsed the L.A. Olympic Games. (It probably doesn’t hurt that golf, a Trump pastime and area of investment, entered the Olympic program in Rio, last year.) ‘I would love to see the Olympics go to Los Angeles,’ Trump said. ‘I think that it’ll be terrific. The United States committee’s members have asked me to speak up about it, and I have, and I think I’ve helped them, and let’s see what happens. But I’d be very happy and honored if they would choose Los Angeles, and we’d stand behind it.’ (Meanwhile, organizers of the Paris bid have hedged their bets and befriended all the candidates leading in the polls.).” Pilon in The New Yorker.
In the end, global politics, escalating conflicts and hard economic realities are rewriting the face of world competitive events. And where nations are building walls and limiting the ability to cross their borders, can such countries even think about getting into bidding for such international competitions? As increasing numbers Western powers retreat from open movement of immigrants, pose questions of religiously-mandated apparel, raise potential trade barriers and pull back from globalization, are we witnessing a complete shift in how and where international events can take place in the foreseeable future? Is this a part of the decline of the West and the rise of the East?
I’m Peter Dekom, and as the world changes, as populism replaces democracy, even our ability to host and play competitive sports becomes materially altered.

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