When Denver pulled out of hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics two years after it was awarded the games, citing financial and environmental worries, it was a shock. Then holding the games was seen as a privilege, but now Denver seems ahead of its time.
The rush of interested cities has slowed to a trickle, and voters are quickly going off the idea. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been forced to reform its bidding process. Cities are no longer forced to put together proposals costing tens of millions of dollars; the IOC now picks promising candidates and identifies a “preferred bidder”.
Knock-out rounds of voting have been replaced by a more collaborative process, which this week identified Brisbane as the host for the 2032 summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Why do so few cities want to play host? And will the IOC’s changes rekindle their interest?
Playing host to the Olympics has come in and out of fashion before. The most common gripe is cost. From the earliest modern games in 1896 until the end of the 1960s, competitions were held in big cities in America and Europe that already had the necessary infrastructure. This kept things cheap.
But the games quickly grew. The number of athletes more than doubled between 1956 and 1972. The cost to Montreal, the host of the 1976 summer games, was so exorbitant that the city paid off its final debts for the facilities only in 2006.
Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Games unopposed and negotiated the use of existing infrastructure. The competition was profitable and suddenly the Olympics got its allure back. Emerging markets, such as South Korea (1988), Greece (2004) and China (2008), saw it as an opportunity to showcase their development and vitality.
But as the number of would-be hosts grew, so did the IOC’s list of demands. Hosts needed not only to build world-class sports grounds, but hotels and metro systems. Revenue from broadcasting rights picked up, but not quickly enough to underwrite the costs. The budget for London’s bid for the 2012 games ballooned from a starting point of £2.4bn ($3.3bn) to more than £9.3bn.
Despite the expense, Olympic bids used to be popular with voters. At the end of 2012, eight out of ten Londoners said that summer’s games had been worth the extraordinary cost.
But sentiment has shifted. The process for awarding the 2024 Games is particularly instructive. In 2015 Boston was the front-runner, until an anti-Olympics campaign helped to turn the public against the idea. Of particular concern was a clause in the IOC’s contract stipulating that local taxpayers would be responsible if costs overran.
When Boston’s mayor pulled the plug, Rome, Hamburg and Budapest withdrew their bids too. Eventually only Paris and Los Angeles were left. The IOC took the face-saving step of awarding the games to Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.
A poll in May found that as many as 80 per cent of Japanese oppose this year’s games in Tokyo. Many people worry not just about the cost, but the risk to public safety with Covid-19 cases rising. Even authoritarian regimes, which care little for voters’ objections, may think twice in future about hosting. The games can bring unwanted attention. Hardening attitudes in the West towards human-rights abuses in China have fuelled calls to boycott its winter games next year.
The IOC promised change ahead of the process to award the 2032 games. It would make its decision 11 years in advance rather than seven as previously; would consider proposals from groups of cities or whole regions; and would drop the expensive pre-prepared bids in favour of “continuous dialogue” between prospective hosts and a new committee made up mostly of IOC bigwigs.
This produced a credible choice in Brisbane, although some German politicians criticised the IOC for a lack of transparency when their bid to host in the Rhine-Ruhr region failed.
In truth, the new process gives more control to the IOC. This is likely to result in fewer costly mistakes but also more accusations of partiality. It also puts much greater pressure on the integrity of its commission members. The IOC has gone from beggar to chooser.
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