In the olive leaf–wreathed days of ancient Greece, the Olympics were held on a mythical foundation—a pageant for Zeus, celebrating the super-human accomplishments of mortals. But more directly, victory at the Games was a symbol of dominance for Greek city–states to hold over their rivals.
Our modern Olympics operate in much the same fashion. They are a spectacle of wonder, a competition of the finest athletes in the world, most of whom dedicate their lives to the pursuit of greatness in sports that offer little in the way of monetary gain. We celebrate their efforts and accomplishments, because collectively they reach the limits of what the human form is capable of doing. They deserve our praise and respect. This is what the Olympics do best. This is why we watch in awe. But the other side—the more cynical reality—is that the Games are a symbol of wealth and dominance. They exist only because there is money to be made by billion-dollar corporations and because cities and nations are willing to shell out billions for the status gained in hosting them.
That last bit, though, is changing. At least it seems to be, because of no one wants to touch the 2022 Winter Olympics. In the wake of a European financial crisis, scandals over the use of public funds, allegations of corruption, and reports about the constant cost overruns for host cities, potential suitors for the 2022 games are rapidly pulling their bids.
One problem is that despite all the talk of future benefits gained by the billions poured into hosting a games—new buildings, improved infrastructure, subsequent events—the Olympics always cost more than then initially planned and always lose money. A recent study by Oxford’s Said Business School outlined the cost of the Summer and Winter g\Games over the past half-century, which were overrun with “100 per cent consistency.
Underlining the point, this year’s Sochi Olympics are said to have cost $51 billion. Meanwhile, relics of Games long gone continue to grow weeds. After the Olympics in Athens just a decade ago, the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders describes a crumbing volleyball stadium in which nomadic families live in the stands and a 20,000 seat–softball stadium taken over by trees. Montreal was left with a $1.5-billion debt that took three decades to cover after the 1976 Summer Games. Examples follow pretty much everywhere the five rings have flown. In the end, the Games are like an expensive sports car for host cities—a show of luxury and status, a symbol of dominance—that offers little more than superficial gain.
These days, taxpayers in democratic nations just aren’t willing to pay for it. So far, as the Associated Press has reported, Munich and St. Moritz-Davos dropped plans after German and Swiss referendums revealed that voters had no interest in hosting the Games. Likewise, in Krakow, 70 percent of voters said they didn’t want the Olympics to come to Poland. Stockholm also backed away after municipal funding was declined. A bid from Lviv, Ukraine, is unlikely to go forward given the more serious issue of being invaded by Russia.
Oslo is an ideal host—having held the Olympics in 1952 and with the success of Norway's Lillehammer Games in 1994—but polls suggest that 60 percent of Norwegians are against holding the Games. Recently one of the two parties in the country's governing coalition openly went against the bid. Norway won’t decide if it will go forward until the fall. At the moment, it seems unlikely.
The two contenders left are Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing. As has been pointed out many times in the past few days, both of these countries face long list of criticism for their human rights records. Neither country gives a rip about what its citizens think about the cost, which make things easy in the IOC bidding process. Is the future of the Olympics being written here—in places where our great, global celebration of human accomplishment is surrounded by a disregard for human rights? That was the case in Sochi, which was sullied by Russia's homophobic polices and their actions in Ukraine following the Games, while the Olympic cauldron was still hot from an extinguished flame.
The Olympics have always been a political tool, veiled by the sincere, honourable pursuits of our athletes. Nothing is new about that—from Olympia, to Berlin, to Sochi and so many places in between. But now it seems, increasingly, that the Games—our collective celebration of the individual pursuit of human accomplishment—are merely the shiny playthings of non-democratic nations that have the coin to spend. The Olympics are an expensive way to declare a nation’s rising status, a way to declare political dominance just like the ancient city-states in Greece. Back then, the athletic victories were a sign of status. Today, they still matter, but the Games themselves are the prize. The rest is mostly pageantry.