Seven years from now, the youth of the world will assemble for the games of the thirty-third Olympiad, at a venue to be decided in September of this year. But the bidding process for the 2024 games has played host to controversy from the start, as political wrangling and popular opposition have derailed most of the nominees. Of the five cities that were officially put forward in September 2015, just two remain active. Whatever happens at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in Peru later this year, it is clear that populations throughout the democratic world are no longer willing to tolerate the disruption and inequity that comes with hosting the greatest sporting shows on Earth.
Earlier this month, while IOC delegates were touring Los Angeles, one of the two remaining candidate cities, a group of Angelinos launched their campaign in opposition to the city’s bid. “NOlympics LA” objects to what they regard as the inherently undemocratic nature of the bidding process, as well as their belief that it will only benefit those who are already wealthy and powerful. The group, which is associated with the Democratic Socialists of America, argues that even if the games were to turn a profit, they would divert resources from less fashionable issues like homelessness and immigration.
The other candidate city, Paris, chastened by narrowly losing the 2012 games to London, has conducted its bid with great discipline and little controversy, and is the odds-on favourite to win this time. But the popular opposition seen in cities like Los Angeles, and has become a feature of the bidding process for many sporting mega-events. It coincides with a re-appraisal by sports economists of the benefits of hosting major athletic spectacles. Andrew Zimbalist, the author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, argues that while the operating costs of such events are relatively low, the tendency of FIFA and the IOC to favour ambitious construction projects over existing infrastructure has made them uneconomical for most cities.
The fact that the big sporting organisations have tended to ignore their own advisors has not helped: Rio was awarded the 2016 games despite finishing fifth out of seven in the technical inspection, one place behind the Qatari capital, Doha. Though the Rio games were a success on TV, their legacy has been corruption allegations, a municipal financial crisis and many abandoned venues. Sites for minority sports like kayaking and softball were built without serious consideration for their long-time viability – just as they were in Athens in 2004. These problems recur, yet the practice of building shiny new venues in cities that do not need them continues to be encouraged.
No less than nine cities had bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics when they were awarded to Salt Lake City in 1995, including Östersund in Sweden. Twenty years on, six cities bid for 2022, but four of them withdrew before the final announcement. The political crisis in Ukraine derailed Lviv’s bid, but Oslo, Stockholm and Krakow were forced out due to a lack of political and popular support. A referendum in Krakow returned a result of nearly seventy per cent against hosting the Olympics, while Oslo withdrew when the Norwegian government refused to commit to paying the bill. Ultimately, the games were awarded to Beijing: a rich, authoritarian and therefore safe pair of hands for the IOC.
The bidding process for the 2024 summer games has been no less shambolic. Los Angeles was not the first choice to represent the US – that was Boston, but they withdrew in July 2015 after a brief yet highly polarised debate, which saw opposition to the bid consistently above fifty per cent for most of its existence. Hamburg, Rome and Budapest made it to the official starting line at least, but all three bids were successfully killed off by voters. In Hamburg voters rejected the bid in a referendum, while in Budapest the mere threat of a plebiscite was enough to end the city’s Olympic ambitions. Rome’s candidacy was effectively brought to a halt when the Five Star Movement won the 2016 mayoral election in a landslide, running on an anti-Olympics platform.
The success of the campaign in Boston has created a template for elsewhere. The same arguments are put forward by each campaign: the games divert money that would be better spent on other things, and they almost always cost far more than expected. They also accelerate gentrification, and prioritise elite tourists and delegates over locals, requiring intimidating levels of security. In the words of Christopher Gaffney, a senior research fellow at the University of Zurich and a prominent voice in the anti-Olympic movement, “the more information citizens have about how the IOC works, the less likely they are to engage in that kind of business contract.”
For now, the IOC does not face a problem: all they need is one willing host. Beijing will probably do a fine job in 2022, and Paris will likely follow suit two years later. The organisation’s president Thomas Bach successfully passed reforms to the bidding process in 2014, allowing joint bids between countries and reducing the cost of putting forward a bid. But for these reforms to work the voting behaviour of individual IOC delegates will have to change – allowing cheaper, shared bids is pointless if the more ambitious ones are shown to be more successful.
It is possible that the next Olympic bidding process will pass without a contest: there has been some speculation that 2028 will be offered as a consolation prize to this September’s loser. The spectacle of city after city rejecting the games has clearly been an embarrassment to the IOC and to those involved in the failed bids, and it has shown that democracy is not a spectator sport. But it also puts a question mark over the games’ future: what if they held an Olympics and nobody came?