Decrepit, unused venues, unfinished transportation projects, rising unemployment and social unrest, crippling debt, the Maracanã in tatters – this is the scenario in Rio de Janeiro six months after Thomas Bach strode off the stage at the 2016 Closing Ceremonies, never to return.
Similar to the catastrophic waste of money for twelve stadiums for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the unfulfilled promises of social housing and efficient venue use following London 2012, the herd of white elephants released in South Africa, the destruction of the environment and staggering graft in Sochi, and the monumental decrepitude of the Bird´s Nest, Rio 2016 has demonstrated yet again that the business of hosting sports mega-events is a temporary boon to the organisers, construction industry, and wealthy fans, but a terrible proposition for cities, taxpayers, and the environment.
This week, residents of Switzerland voted not to bid for the 2026 Winter Games. Hamburg, Boston, Budapest, and Rome refused to bid for the 2024 Olympics. Perhaps because they know the outcome, L.A. and Paris refuse to hold referendums on their Olympic bids. The 2018 Korean Olympics have already had disastrous environmental and political consequences. The Russians are building 12 stadiums for the 2018 World Cup and those projects are shrouded in graft and waste. Tokyo 2020 is spectacularly dysfunctional and over budget. The only choices for the 2022 Olympics were Beijing and Almaty: the Chinese are building a high-speed rail to mountains that have no snow. The Qatari labour system has killed hundreds of migrant workers, toiling to build stadiums that will glint in the desert winter for a few weeks. FIFA says they can´t influence national political systems, but they refuse to pay for any of the infrastructure that they need and then argue that national governments are responsible for cost overruns, not them. This corporate disingenuousness is written across the global landscape.
Given that we - academics, researchers, and journalists, who have been arguing for some time that there are difficulties with the hosting of mega-events as they are currently organized - repeat the refrain every two years, we need to ask ourselves two questions: is this outcome accidental and should we continue?
To answer the first question, we must first suspend our conceptions of major sports events as such. These massive gatherings are, as Jules Boykoff and Andrew Zimbalist have pointed out, integral elements of the global economy, moments of spectacular consumption that make billions for their owners: FIFA and the IOC. If we follow the money back to Switzerland, we see two organizations that act as monopoly rights holders, that operate with very little transparency, and take no responsibility for the short or long-term outcomes of their events. True, local coalitions of vested interests seek out the Games, yet the media companies, politicians, security, tourism, real-estate and construction firms that push for the bids are those that are guaranteed to benefit from public largesse. With a guarantee of public financing and a puerile search for symbolic and political capital, there is no need to skimp on the party. Thus, the answer is no, the destruction is a naturalised element of the festival: a long lasting hangover unequally borne by the most vulnerable with the benefits accruing to the “rights holders” that imagined and staged the bi-annual global bacchanal.
With Rio, we saw a city and country caught up in a sudden spasm of good fortune, with government sponsored pre-Games legacy proclamations echoing all previous Games in recent times: socializing the costs will socialize the benefits. There is the dream-like quality of the Olympics that appears to grip boosters who are alerted to the potential opportunities for place promotion on a global stage. Yet the benefits continue to be overestimated by event organisers and sports fans are all too willing to suspend critical thought as they can travel to see the events or watch them from the comfort of their sofas. The IOC and FIFA touch down for a month, take their billions and are gone. Fans descend in the hundreds of thousands, take their selfies, drink their globalized lagers and sodas, and return home to reminisce.
What remains, in every case, is a city or country whose pre-existing problems have been exacerbated: increased gentrification and real-estate speculation in London, greater social division, urban fragmentation, and lack of resources in Rio, concentration of political power in Russia, environmental destruction in China, tens of billions wasted in Japan.
Should we continue? The Games certainly will. An ‘East Asian Era’ is about to unfold in the hosting of the Winter and Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games as Pyeongchang (South Korea), Tokyo (Japan), and Beijing (China) prepare to act as hosts for the next three between 2018 and 2022. Before Pyeongchang hosts the Winter Olympics and Paralympics the IOC will select either Paris or L.A. for the 2024 debt-inducing media specatcular (Why they will do so in Lima, Peru is anyone´s guess). Since the Games take place within fractured social structures and amid enormous inequalities that persist and develop over time we have to continue to conduct research, investigate questionable practices, and articulate our concerns. Neither Paris or Los Angeles can meet budgetary, human rights, or sustainability standards – indeed the hosting of an Olympic Games implies consumption, militarization, pollution, waste, and corruption. Cities around the world are realizing this and are pulling the bid. If you wouldn´t want the Games in your city, you too should pull the plug on the Olympics and go play.