One is torn between shock and resignation when viewing the latest photos of some of the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games venues (see Brazilian news outlet O Globo).
They have been released just as media is filled with stories about Canadian athletes preparing and qualifying for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, and as we here in Whistler recall that seven years ago this week we were caught up in the excitement of hosting our own Winter Games in 2010.
It's been six months since South America hosted its first Games and the photos are a depressing sight, revealing that several of the venues are already abandoned, looted and simply sitting unused.
The images force us, especially previous Games hosts, to ask ourselves and Olympic organizers about how this mega-event is assigned, run and managed as a legacy. What is the point of this sporting monolith in today's world anyway? Is it worth the incredible cost when millions of people are starving, or without education, water, or health care? Ask yourself who the real beneficiaries are.
Let's also remember that the Rio Games displaced an estimated 60,000 people, Sochi's Winter Games of 2014 (US$21.9 billion) did little in the end to boost living standards in the venue sites and the London 2012 Summer Games (US$15 billion) resulted in thousands being evicted so landlords could cash in on the event.
In Sochi, Games venues and infrastructure also sit unused. These were the most expensive Games ever to be held — remember that the ski jumps went from $40 million to $300 million, just to cite one example of cost overruns. (Our ski jumps at Whistler Olympic Park cost $30 million. The entire Nordic complex at the Callaghan cost $122.4 million — $20.4 million over budget)
A much-touted $8.5-billion rail link between the Black Sea coast at Sochi and the mountains is also all but suspended. A dispute between the local administration and the monopoly Russian Railways over who will pay for the costly maintenance of the Olympics' most expensive project has threatened to shut it down.
Looking at the experience of the last few Games just has to make organizers give their heads a shake. Rio's Games are reported to have cost US$4.6 billion, plus overrun costs at 51 per cent.
Whistler and Vancouver's Games — though not perfect — look like "Best-in-Class" in comparison. (Direct and indirect costs were $7.7 billion. The 2010 Games broke even.)
Whistler's Olympic venues, though not money-makers, are well used for both competition and tourists. About 56,000 people used Whistler Olympic Park in 2015-16, the Whistler Sliding Centre saw 6,192 public rides and the Athletes' Centre saw fitness classes held, athletes and coaches housed and even parent-teacher lectures. On top of this, the former athlete's village is a vibrant neighbourhood of much-needed employee housing. (The 2010 venues are supported from a $110-million, taxpayer-funded Olympic legacy trust set up before the Games to ensure some venues didn't become white elephants.)
But is it truly possible to host an event such as the Olympics as a one-off and not face economic peril? I would argue no. There is no expert in the world in any field who would suggest that hosting a mega-event as a one-time thing is a recipe for success.
An Oxford University Said Business School study released last year found that "...the Olympics have the highest average cost overrun of any type of mega-project.
"Moreover, cost overrun is found in all Games, without exception; for no other type of mega-project is this the case. (Forty-seven) percent of Games have cost overruns above 100 percent. The largest cost overrun for Summer Games was found for Montreal 1976 at 720 percent, followed by Barcelona 1992 at 266 percent. For Winter Games, the largest cost overrun was 324 percent for Lake Placid 1980, followed by Sochi 2014 at 289 percent.
"Given the above results, for a city and nation to decide to stage the Olympic Games is to decide to take on one of the most costly and financially most risky type of mega-project that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril."
In many democracies, the support for hosting Olympics is waning, I would argue — though Calgary seems to be going full-steam ahead with its bid to host in 2026 with a proposed budget of $5.3 billion.
If we value the true meaning of the Games and amateur sport, maybe it really is time to consider a permanent home. Look at the model of professional golf or tennis, which returns to the same venues year after year, the very expertise gained helping in myriad ways to run a successful event.
But how do you keep all nations involved? Author Roger Howard offers one potential solution: What if the IOC granted long-term hosting rights to one city, which in turn could sell rights to host each Olympic Games to a different country?
"Imagine," said Howard, "a poor but stable African country hosting a permanent Olympic stadium that would be funded by wealthier foreign donors and guarded by their security apparatus."
Or a nation like Kenya organizing the opening and closing ceremonies for an Olympics centre in a Western nation?
It's time for a change if we want to keep the meaning of the Games intact and the nations hosting them in the black.
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