I need to still love the Olympics

One of my earliest television memories is watching the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. As an elementary school kid, most of what I knew about Japan was what I knew from school or cartoons, which made it a land of ninjas and people who lost World War II, whatever that was. The Japan that came through the television screen was so much different than the place I thought I knew.

It wasn’t just Japan that I discovered. Thanks to Tara Lipinski, figure skating went from a thing I thought old people enjoyed to a sport I understood to be physically demanding and yet also stunningly graceful. It was the first time I saw skiing legend Hermann Maier, whose near-back-to-back blowout crash and gold medal win remain one of the defining moments in Olympic downhill.

Two years later, Australia went from place where Taz the Tasmanian Devil is from to country with its own rich history and traditions. The 2000 Summer Olympics were such a mega-event that most subsequent summer games have been modeled at least in part on Sydney.

And, of course, in 2002, the United States held perhaps the most poignant opening ceremony in the history of the games, coming just months after the September 11th attacks. Those games had been shocked not just by 9/11 but also by a bribery scandal and questions of corruption; they were rescued by a little-known financier who had just lost the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts and who turned a financially-adrift ship into a $100 million success.

$100 million.

That’s the take for the most financially successful games of the modern era, and possibly of all time. Mitt Romney’s time as CEO of the games is remembered for big cost reductions meant to get the most out of the dollars Romney was squeezing from corporate bigwigs, and that money became a kind of endowment to maintain the facilities built in and around Salt Lake City.

Subsequent games would not be so lucky. The 2004 games in Athens required the city and nation to spend billions of dollars on new infrastructure. Athenians scored a major subway expansion, a new suburban rail network, and improvements to pedestrian thoroughfares. But a debt crisis (sometimes incorrectly claimed to be linked to the games) left many of the venues of the Athens games in ruins, if for no other reason than that the games require far more infrastructure than a city usually needs for itself after.

The same is true of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the Chinese government was willing to pay any price for the international prestige that hosting the games brings. You can still find remnants of those games around the city, like a beach volleyball stadium that, for some reason, Beijing residents don’t seem to have needed after the games.

In 2016, Rio spent millions to clear out low-income residents and replace them with upscale condos and hotels that, again, created far more infrastructure than the post-Olympics city requires. Brazil shelled out $13 billion for the Olympics, about 1% of their GDP. What do they get in return? Well, prestige.

Prestige has always been the reason why cities and countries have wanted to host the games. There’s nothing new about building new infrastructure for the games, either. The 1960 Winter Olympics were awarded to a California resort that hadn’t been built yet, and the award was made just four years before the games.

Japan National Stadium in Tokyo cost $1.4 billion to build, replacing the original stadium built for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Capable of hosting 80,000 spectators, the stadium will be mostly empty during the games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Tomacrosse / Shutterstock.com

Tokyo is spending more money than anyone has ever spent to host this year’s games, money it needed to spend after the games were postponed in 2020. The Olympics have never been postponed before, instead usually just getting cancelled (for example: the 1940 Winter Olympics would have been hosted in Japan but 1940 so instead they were awarded to Germany but 1940 so organizers decided to just cancel those and focus on the 1944 Winter Olympics in Italy but 1944 so those were cancelled as well), but with Tokyo spending over $12 billion to host the idea of just cancelling didn’t sit well with organizers. So it poured a few billion more into overhauling the venues for a post-COVID world and even that hasn’t panned out, as we’re still very much a mid-COVID world which means no spectators at the nation’s 80,000-seat National Stadium.

Los Angeles is hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics. Boston was originally the United States’ choice to host, but Bostonians were extremely down on the idea. Some of that is old fashioned ‘we can’t have nice things’ New England ideology, but many were concerned that the kinds of things the Olympics brings – traffic, new buildings that aren’t necessary after the games, people from away – weren’t going to help Boston’s existing traffic, building, and tourism problems. Los Angeles already has a lot of infrastructure necessary to host because it has a ton of sports teams, several major universities, and a subway system it is determined to get Angelinos to use. Even so, there’s loud opposition to the games in L.A., even if it’s not necessarily widespread.

And those concerns aren’t crazy. Concerned about crime in the lead-up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles pumped millions into the LAPD, fueling a mass incarceration boom that still haunts California. In 2021, the idea of giving the multibillion dollar LAPD more money seems ludicrous (oops, that’s exactly what the city is doing).

Urban and regional planner Dave Amos has advocated for a fundamental reimagining of the Olympics, which would transition the event from something that moves to a new city every other year to something that circles the same batch of cities. Amos’ vision would mean the end of building unnecessary one-time infrastructure.

Critics might say that this almost certainly means the games would always been in wealthy, well-developed nations. Los Angeles, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Salt Lake, Milan & Cortina d’Ampezzo, Pyeongchang, rinse, repeat, confine the games to cities that have the infrastructure. Critics would be right. But the only other option – short of ending the games altogether – is to scale down the games.

Drop some of the pomp and circumstance. Boston has dozens of existing sports venues but there was a push to build a temporary 60,000-seat stadium, about the same size as the existing Gillette Stadium, because you apparently have to have two major stadiums for the Olympics (Los Angeles has the new SoFi Stadium and the existing Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which hosted the 1932 and 1984 games). Older ex-hosts like Lake Placid, which still have their infrastructure in good condition, often lament that the International Olympics Committee’s rules make it impossible to mount a new bid.

An Ironman event in Lake Placid in 2006; the ski jump from the 1980 Winter Olympics can be seen in the background. Lake Placid lacks the infrastructure now mandated by the IOC to host a future games. Credit: Duke53

Perhaps its a mix of the unyielding pandemic and the racially-tinged events surrounding this year’s games (which, again, were meant to be last year’s games), but it feels like more people than ever are questioning what the purpose of the Olympics is. Natalie Shure, columnist and the lead researcher behind Adam Ruins Everything, argued in the New Republic that the time has come to abolish the Olympics entirely: “And for all that money and suffering, what do we get? A huge blowout every two years for cosmopolitan elites—right down to contractually demanded cocktail parties feting the IOC!—and some 15,000 athletes, more of whom will resort to crowdfunding their trip to the games than will ever end up on a Wheaties box.”

I get it. I really do. But it’s hard for me to set aside the young boy watching figure skating for the first time. The Olympics are how I discovered the world beyond my rural New England home. I never dreamed of being an athlete in the games but their dreams were certainly not foreign to me. It is hard to argue that I think abolishing the world’s foremost celebration of athleticism and sport, where people from different nations and cultures mingle and where those exploits are broadcast to people in every corner of the globe, is a good idea. I need the Olympics to keep happening. But I need them to be better, as an entity, than they are right now. I need them to be good for their communities. Whether that’s a smaller games, a more restricted hosting pool, or some other solution, the 2020 Summer Olympics have brought to light the unsustainable way we celebrate the human spirit. The human spirit can do better than this.

Cover image: Karolis Kavolelis / Shutterstock.com. Used under license.