The International Olympic Committee’s day of reckoning looks to be imminent. It’s not news that the Olympic movement has been hurtling towards disaster for decades, as they’ve pursued an unsustainable business plan and stretched it as far as it can go. Every biennial, the body presides over an arms race of sorts, as various locales try to outbid each other for the privilege of hosting their own edition of the games.
…Well, at least that’s what used to happen.
It appears we’ve finally hit the breaking point in this process. The IOC’s ever-increasing demands for the event are no longer something potential hosts are willing to match. Host interest is declining, which means the IOC is going to have to get creative to save their product. While we’ll take a look at some of the paths they could pursue shortly, it’s worth first taking a look at how we got here.
It’s become increasingly difficult to find host cities for the Winter version of the games, with the IOC seeing a steady decrease in bid cities since the 2014 games were awarded to Sochi, Russia. The last two selection processes, in particular, have been borderline embarrassing for the committee, with a third looming as a much larger problem. The 2022 bid process saw more bids withdrawn than remained for the committee’s final decision. Of the survivors, they chose 2008 host city Beijing over Almaty, Kazakhstan, in large part due to the ability for Beijing to reuse a number of the venues leftover from their previous games. Two years later, faced with only two serious bidders and sensing negative momentum towards any further, the committee opted to award both the 2024 and 2028 games simultaneously to Paris and Los Angeles. This hinted at further cracks in the foundation of the process, with the committee returning to a host only 14 years later, followed by the unprecedented step of assigning two games at once.
While the processes for the 2022, 2024 and 2028 games were less than inspiring, the process for the 2026 games has the potential to turn into a calamity. Already, the IOC has had to adopt new measures to try to drum up interest in hosting the games, including most notably pushing back the timeline for bid submissions. This helped some candidates emerge, but, with last week’s announcement that Calgary, Canada had joined Sapporo, Japan; Graz, Austria and Sion, Switzerland in withdrawing from consideration, the field is already back down to just two. Calgary became the latest city to follow what has become a very worrisome trend for the IOC: when held up to democratic approval, the current system of hosting consistently fails to pass muster.
The common thread is consistent and fairly straightforward: the games have become too cost-prohibitive to its host locales. The astronomical price of venues, security, hospitality and transportation puts hosts in a position where even the most efficient planning still leaves them likely to wallow in a deep financial hole. The 2018 games cost South Korea over $13 billion US to host, and the larger-scale Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 topped $50 billion US. Both cities incurred tremendous debt to pull the event off, and are not at all likely to ever recoup the costs in related benefits. In fact, every Olympic Games since 2000 has gone significantly over budget. The economic realities of the venture are quickly becoming too much for most locales to ignore, and by extension, are just as quickly becoming too much for the committee to ignore.
This brings us to the reality facing the committee: the very existence of the games may soon be diving into green sewage water if the current process continues. Change is necessary, and this is something that they have made clear they are aware of by taking the step of providing $1.8 billion US in incentives for Los Angeles to host in 2028. So, what is a poor committee to do? I believe there are a few options available to consider.
OPTION 1: REVITALIZE AND REUSE PREVIOUS HOST CITIES
The IOC has already dabbled in this option; Beijing is a legacy city as Calgary would have been (though having the added bonus of having a nice legacy of violating personal freedoms as well). While Tokyo (2020), Paris and Los Angeles are all repeat hosts, they don’t really fit what the IOC needs to do here, since over 50 years have elapsed since the cities last hosted. Even Calgary is on the borderline here, but where the line is drawn is the ability to involve legacy venues in the festivities. The Calgary bid, for example, planned to reuse major venues leftover from the 1988 Olympics for hockey, figure skating and the sliding sports, amongst others. Beijing also will be making use of multiple legacy venues from their last hosting gig in 2006. There are multiple benefits to reusing somewhat recent hosts, the venue costs being one of the biggest. Calgary’s bid proposed a budget of $5.11 billion Canadian dollars (roughly $3.85B USD) for the entire event, which is less than even Pyeongchang’s preliminary budget estimate of $5B USD. The difference? It lies almost entirely in venue costs. This option also provides the added benefit of prior experience on the part of the host committee, as well as a familiarity on behalf of the committee in the host location.
Pros: Reduced costs to hosts, familiarity and experience, maintains a rotation of hosts.
Cons: New cities don’t get the opportunity to host, still a heavy financial burden on host cities (especially when they know it will occur again in the future).
OPTION TWO: CO-HOSTS
Elements of this concept have already been practiced on multiple occasions as well, but I propose to take it one step further. Recent examples of hosts with secondary host cities include Salt Lake City (Provo) and Vancouver (Whistler). However, these examples were just as such - a primary host and a secondary host, both located in the same general vicinity. Of most relevance, this meant that it didn’t help mitigate costs for the host cities/region/country in any way. What if, instead, the IOC adopted a full co-hosting practice? This would see games split among multiple host countries, ideally neighbouring countries or those in close proximity. Think something along the lines of the US/Canada/Mexico joint World Cup proposal. This would spread out the costs while keeping some elements of centralization to the whole process. Admittedly, it loses some of the romance of the entire world gathering in one place for the event (though I would suggest there be one joint opening and closing ceremony for the games), but it’s a trade-off that might be necessary. There are also some logistical challenges that arise from the multiple locations and countries involved, but given the fact that certain hosts have had similar arrangements before, I think it would be a manageable hurdle. There have been previous early-stage host candidacies involving multiple countries, but for it to actually become a reality would be brand new. Imagine Munich-Salzburg 2026? It’s a mouthful, but it just might work.
Pros: Costs borne by two countries, centralized to one region.
Cons: No true “host”, loss of patriotic boost, complex logistics.
OPTION THREE: LENGTHENING/SKIPPING A CYCLE
This would be the nuclear option of sorts. One must assume the IOC would only go this route if they had no other viable option, but they could choose to either skip one edition of the games entirely or spread the cycle out so that hosting opportunities occur less often than once every two years (or four, depending on your perspective). I wouldn’t consider this to be an appealing option at all for the IOC, for a number of reasons. For starters, the current cycle has a nice symmetry to it, with the two editions of the game coming every two years on the even numbers. A six-year cycle would give us different editions every three years, creating an ugly 2024,2027,2030,2033 cycle. Keeping that symmetry would mean creating an eight-year cycle for each edition of the games. That much spacing would provide some serious drawbacks for the games. Four years between events threatens people losing interest and the games losing relevancy. The biggest issue with this idea? The loss of revenue. At its core, the IOC is an event company that sustains itself off of the ad/sponsorship revenues supporting the games. To essentially cut that revenue stream in half would be the mark of some seriously desperate times. On top of everything else, athletes already feel they have precious opportunities to compete in the games. The added length of a six or eight-year cycle would create a massive amount of added pressure for the athletes, who are far more likely to only get one chance to compete.
Pros: Another method of dispersing the costs, may increase the value of hosting due to the scarcity of opportunities
Cons: Significant loss of revenue, the risk of lost relevance, disruption of traditional spacing.
OPTION FOUR: THE COLLECTIVE COST
This option calls upon the participating nations to all help pay for the games. Probably the most equitable way to do this would be to scale countries’ contributions to the number of athletes they have participating. This concept would either significantly lessen or completely remove the financial burden of hosting the games. There are some complications that could arise with this system, however. For starters, it could prove to be a barrier for certain countries to participate, which is something that flies against the inclusive nature of the Olympic movement. Another issue is that voices from places that traditionally have not had much opportunity to host would grow much louder, and political pressure to host an Olympics in certain parts of the world could end up a major issue in its own right. Also, let’s be serious here… the US isn’t exactly keen on ideas that benefit foreigners these days. There’s potential here, but the potential drawbacks that come along with it may be too much to stomach.
Pros: Hosting costs largely negated, regular rotation and length of cycle remain intact.
Cons: Costs potentially prohibitive to poorer countries or their athletes, expectations to repay investments from member nations, Africans benefiting from American money.
OPTION FIVE: THE MODERN OLYMPUS
Here’s my favorite, though it’s likely a pipe dream concept: what if the Olympic Committee pooled resources from sponsors and member nations to create a permanent home venue for each version of the games? Let’s say a winter location around the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a summer location in the traditional location of the games just outside of Athens, Greece. Think something along the lines of the Pro Football Hall of Fame concept in Canton, Ohio. This would provide a mecca of sorts for athletes to strive to travel to, just as the ancient Greeks did 2000 years ago. The startup costs would be somewhat large-scale, but the maintenance costs, undertaken by the committee itself, would likely amount to far less than a new bid in a different location every four years. I think the idea of the world’s athletic playground is pretty cool, but the idea isn’t without potential drawbacks. One such issue is that of novelty: would people get tired of going back to the same old place every Olympiad? How could the committee keep the experience fresh every time around? Speaking of novelty, would a large enough fan market arise to support such events? Most current Olympic hosts live or die on their ticket revenue…would enough people make the pilgrimage to come watch? (Or, in the modern age of broadcast deals…would it even matter?) The final issue is that one permanent home means that if something that compromises safety or creates turmoil in the area around that home occurs, the games are in big trouble. The potential for these sites to be a target for various nefarious deeds is also high. That being said, the streamlining of who finances the games would provide enough benefits that I think this concept could gain some traction if taken seriously and polished up.
Pros: The creation of the Olympics as its own tourist destination and mecca, an extension of the Olympic brand, collective cost to create and maintain, centralized, doesn’t affect the length of the cycle
Cons: Not movable in case of trouble, the high burden on the local area during events, no one else gets to host
There are a number of different directions the IOC can go in this untenable current environment. History tells us that they will do everything in their power to prop up the traditional way they do things, but there are several outside-the-box options that they may be forced to turn to. Whether it’s one of the options laid out here or, more likely, a combination of some of the concepts within, the IOC does have some options if it is forced to make a seismic shift. It would be a massive change, but the future of the Olympics as we know them isn’t necessarily as hopeless as it may seem on the surface.