If you have to ask the price…What does it take to host the Olympic Games?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Beach Volley at Rio 2016

Professor John Gold is a leading authority on the Olympics. Here, he explains the costs, challenges and rewards for host cities running the Olympic Games.

It is no great secret that most journalists don’t much like the Olympics.  They see the Games as an oversized vanity project that primarily burnishes its host city’s image while supposedly being about encouraging sports participation and leaving a positive urban legacy. They use selective but nevertheless significant examples (Montreal 1976, Athens 2004, Sochi 2014) to show underused Olympic Parks that, at worst, have been financially ruinous for their hosts.

Bad news is therefore welcome and Rio de Janeiro 2016 did not disappoint. Articles published throughout the event focused on incomplete facilities, the collapse of the sailing ramp, state-fostered drug abuse programmes and the Zika virus. There were the shots of largely empty stadia juxtaposed with images of long queues at ticket booths, the diving pools that mysteriously changed colour and the volunteers who failed to materialise.

First, when the IOC decided in the 1890s to re-establish the Olympics on an ambulatory basis rather than being assigned to a permanent site, it effectively chose a solution that would seem inefficient in organisational terms.

Professor John Gold, Urban Historical Geography, Oxford Brookes University

More grist to the mill perhaps and these are certainly themes that many contributors to the third edition of our book Olympic Cities, published to coincide with Rio 2016, would accept merit their headline-grabbing appeal. Nevertheless, all would agree that they only hint at part of the picture. In particular, the book’s essays provide at least three compelling, but seldom stated reasons as why the Games have persisted and indeed thrived over the last 120 years.

First, when the IOC decided in the 1890s to re-establish the Olympics on an ambulatory basis rather than being assigned to a permanent site, it effectively chose a solution that would seem inefficient in organisational terms. Every four years a new city would take on the mantle, having to appoint new personnel and create bodies and procedures to prepare the venues, stage the games and undertake post-event adjustments – with all that implies in terms of staffing, skills and management. Yet, the procedure undoubtedly serves to refresh the event. Despite knowledge transfer procedures, no Olympics is ever the same as the one before.

Marousi Olympic Park Athens

Secondly, the relationship between the Olympic movement and the host city resembles the operation of a franchise arrangement. The IOC cannot proceed without the active participation of cities wishing to purchase the franchise, supply the necessary venues and organise the event, but the franchisee seeks a reward for its investment. Over the years, host cities have sought, among other things, to develop sport, promote tourism and work toward long-term positive legacy. All have been absorbed seamlessly. 

Thirdly, and related, is the question of narrative. The IOC has long recognised that the Olympics impose an enormous financial and logistic burden and one that continues grow, given the inclusion of no less than five new sports for Tokyo 2020. Allowing the host city to address its own needs as a reward is part of the strategy for successfully staging the Games. One effective strategy has come though mastery of narrative; providing convincing stories to present to the world as a way of understanding what the Olympics are about. During the 1990s, the favoured narrative was that of sustainability. By adopting notions of sustainability, cities would use resources responsibly in making the Games and the Olympics might also be seen as spreading good practice in a world becoming acutely conscious of the need for environmentalism.

These three ideas help to explain why accepting the expense of the Games will continue to be seen as a worthwhile goal for cities that aspire for global status. Perhaps, as J.P. Morgan is alleged to have said: "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it”. The evidence from Olympic Cities is that there is a longstanding and continuing belief not only that cities feel that they can afford the price but also that they should.

The full version of this article was published on Alexandrine Press on 30 August 2016.

Pictured: The Beach Volleyball arena in Rio and the habitually deserted Marousi Olympic Park in Athens.