Olympic rings / The Department for Culture, Media and Sport

August 5, 2016, Observer

As the Olympics got underway this summer, many are questioning the current business model with much speculation about the apparently declining desirability of the “hosting” proposition. This has produced a number of suggestions about how the current business model may need to change to guard the Games’ sustainability. One suggestion entails keeping it in one location so that the costs of new infrastructure are curtailed a bit. Others entail changes to cost sharing and revenue sharing arrangements.

Paul Christesen, Professor in the Department of Classics at Dartmouth College, author of Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2012), proposes his own model in the Observer (first published at The Conversation).

It seems as though the Olympics have become too big, too costly and too complicated to be hosted by a single city. The solution? The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body for the Olympic Games, should hold competitions for each different sport in a different global city.

The 2016 Summer Olympics are underway with severe budget overruns, the menacing Zika virus, super-bacteria lurking where athletes will swim and sail, and some waterways reportedly contaminated with raw human sewage and human body parts. Security is such an issue that the Australian team entered their quarters to find “blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring.” Vanessa Barbara, who covers Brazilian politics and culture for the New York Times was more categorical in her lengthy assessment a few weeks ago: “The Olympic Games in Rio are an unnatural disaster.”

The U.S. basketball team has shunned the Olympic Games athletes’ villages since 1992. The team stayed on a ship at the 2004 Games in Athens, used hotels in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, and now they are being housed on a luxury cruise ship. Regarding overall security, striking police officers held up a banner at the Rio airport that read, “Welcome to Hell: police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” The governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of financial disaster” in order to free funds to meet rising costs. It may have made sense in 2009, when the IOC awarded Rio, the first South American city, with the boon of hosting the Olympics, but to many, this endeavor has proven today to be at best an epic exhibition of nerve.

The IOC was founded in 1894, when only the spectators who were physically present could watch the Olympics. Travel was slow, difficult to arrange, and expensive. In addition to advances in technology enabling everyone anywhere to tune in, the size of today’s games may call for a new “decentered” business model.

Since 1980, the number of events held at the Summer Olympics has increased by 50 percent, the number of athletes competing and countries participating has nearly doubled, and the number of people needed to operate the games has tripled. The London Olympics, where more than 10,000 athletes competed, required a support staff of 350,000 people.

Christesen does not deny that there is something special about the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies for the world’s biggest sporting event. He recommends that the athletes be flown to attend these two events.

These ceremonies could be permanently situated in a single place that would become the spiritual center of the Olympics. Lausanne, Switzerland, where the IOC is headquartered, or Olympia, Greece, the place where the Olympics originated nearly 3,000 years ago, would be a couple of good options.