Firstpost Explains: Why are so many cities pulling out of bids to host once-prestigious Olympics

Earlier last week, Calgary citizens voted against the city hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics. But why are so many cities pulling out of bids to host the once-prestigious Games? Firstpost explains

Amit Kamath November 19, 2018 20:49:07 IST
Firstpost Explains: Why are so many cities pulling out of bids to host once-prestigious Olympics

Oslo 2022. Stockholm 2022. Munich 2022. St Moritz 2022. Krakow 2022. Boston 2024. Rome 2024. Hamburg 2024. Budapest 2024. Calgary 2026.

The list of prematurely aborted city bids to host the Olympics got longer this week after Calgary, a city in Canada, was forced to drop out of the race for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

There's something about hosting the Olympics that is making governments and prospective host city residents develop cold feet.

The problem facing the International Olympic Committee is so grave at the moment that four years from now, Beijing – a city where it doesn't snow all that much – will host the Winter Olympics. For a country with ambitions of launching a fake moon to light up its night sky, the lack of natural snow come February 2022 is not that big a concern. After all, didn't Russia bring in snow-making machines for Sochi?

The IOC, though, cannot be as carefree about the lack of bidders for its Games as China is about the paucity of snow.

The world Olympic sports governing body was recently forced into granting Paris the 2024 Games while LA got the 2028 edition after everyone else dropped out.

But why are cities steering clear of hosting the Olympics, which once carried a lot of prestige?

Firstpost Explains Why are so many cities pulling out of bids to host onceprestigious Olympics

There's something about hosting the Olympics that is making governments and prospective host city residents develop cold feet. AP

Meet the Calgary citizens who took on the IOC and the city's administration

Daniel Gauld is an IT specialist. Jeanne Milne is a marketing and business development professional. Erin Waite runs a small non-profit agency that is in the disability sector.

Last week, these three successfully spearheaded a grassroots campaign to get Calgary to reject the Olympics.

Led by the efforts of the trio, a small group called 'No Calgary Olympics' – in collaboration with a few other splinter groups – got 56.4 percent of local residents to vote against the Games in a non-binding plebiscite. The city is expected to end its interest in the 2026 edition by Tuesday.

While Gauld was the founder of the No Calgary Olympics page, Waite handled communications and Milne was the social media strategist.

The group said it had "loose affiliations with other groups who were firmly against the idea".

"Our activities were limited to social media, a weekly email newsletter, and then taking part in debates and forums when we were invited. We had lots of coverage by the traditional radio, TV and newspaper news outlets as well," Waite told Firstpost over email. She says the URL for the website and social media identities of No Calgary Olympics were established over a year ago but had been lying dormant until April this year. But in summer, when the "Yes" campaign officially launched, the No Calgary Olympics started getting media attention as well.

"There were many different reasons for the people who joined us. Most were worried about costs, but particularly in terms of cost over-runs. Many realised that our key economic issues – we are in a serious and prolonged economic downturn – would not be addressed by hosting the Olympics. And for me, personally, the concerns were the relationship to the IOC, in terms of the Host City Contract, and the ethics of the IOC," said Waite.

The No Calgary Olympics website detailed a host of reasons behind their opposition to the Games. They also claimed that the city officials were not considering the risks of hosting the mega-event.

"The risks are on two levels – the costs and high likelihood of cost over-runs, with all of those carried by the host city. And second, the opportunity costs: what wouldn't we be able to do as a city, because we were hosting the Olympics? It was already all-consuming for our City Council so seven years of that focus on the Olympics would have meant other top priority issues would not be addressed. The costs and risks go beyond dollars," Waite claimed.

The group's website also claimed that as much as $35 million (Firstpost has not been able to independently verify this) had been earmarked by the City Council and by the Bid Co – the corporation formed to create the bid – to strengthen the bid. (It must be noted that this is nowhere close to the astronomical $150 million that Tokyo invested in its bid for the 2016 Olympics.)

The group estimated that as much as half that money had been invested already on things like hiring a long list of consultants, mostly people from Vancouver's 2010 Olympics, to develop the bid document and advice through the summer. The group also alleged that the Bid Co had spent $1.4 million just to advertise to get Calgary to vote 'Yes.'

"We should get an accounting of those funds but we haven't seen that yet. We don't know exactly how much was spent on what. But it likely included costs towards paying the Bid organization's staff salaries and consultants, developing the Bid, creating renderings of the plans, promoting the Bid to Calgarians, flying Olympic athletes in to promote the Bid and all kinds of other activities made up that investment," Waite said.

The website of No Calgary Olympics also cites other concerns behind the opposition like the IOC's track record in anti-doping matters etc. But Waite said the Host City Contract was the biggest issue. In particular, she pointed out, that in case of cost over-runs, the city hosting the Games would have to bear the additional fiscal burden, while the IOC's exposure remained the same.

"The Host City Contract was our biggest concern. The IOC sets all of the terms and requirements for the host city, but the host city carries all of the risk, particularly of cost over-runs. Many of our athletes lost medals to athletes who were doping, with a prominent one being cross-country skier, Beckie Scott. She was awarded a bronze, but both the gold and silver medal-holders were disqualified. It was years before she was given her rightful gold medal. She has taken an active role in the anti-doping movement but as recently as the Buenos Aires meeting of the IOC in October, Scott was bullied by the IOC for her stance. This, along with their decision to reinstate Russia, is not acceptable," she said.

On being asked what they would rather the money to be spent on, Waite replied: "Calgary has many other priorities, some including our sports venues, but not all. We have a serious issue of dependence on oil and gas exploration and development, but that is a sunset industry. We have 27 percent office vacancy in our downtown because of the economics of the oil industry in Canada today. Calgary has to make a significant shift to new economy or other sectors in order to have a healthy city. Focusing on hosting the Olympics would be a distraction from that work.

"In addition, there are many other factors that make a liveable city, and being a liveable city is what attracts people and businesses to make their home here. Again, focusing on the Olympics would have been a distraction from those long-term goals. From the start, hosting the Olympics was pitched as 'the Olympics or nothing.' Calgary has lots of other opportunities and can continue to build and thrive without the Olympics."

Nine pullouts, a host of reasons

Oslo pulled out of the race for the 2022 Games after the Norwegian government refused to financially underwrite the city's bid to host the Games. This, months after 58 percent of Norwegians said they were against taxpayer money being used to fund the Games.

According to reports, the ruling party of Norway pulled the rug from under the bid after a report in the biggest local newspaper said that should the city win, IOC would make demands like separate lanes for Olympic traffic and the king hosting a "cocktail reception" for IOC members. The report was later rebutted by an IOC spokesman, who said these were not so much demands as suggestions.

Stockholm's interest in hosting the 2022 Winter Games ended prematurely due to financial reasons. A leader of the ruling party had at the time stated that "bidding for the Olympics in the current situation would entail too much speculation with taxpayers' money".

Munich's interest in hosting the 2022 Games was cut short by a plebiscite, in which Germans in the state of Bavaria voted resoundingly against the idea of hosting a Winter Olympics.

Leading the charge against the bid was a group called NOlympia, which cited reasons like IOC's non-transparency and environmental concerns along side the usual fiscal worries.

St Moritz and Davos had also pulled out of the bidding process after a plebiscite in Graubuenden (state) and both the host cities soundly pointed at public apathy for the Games.

Krakow's hopes of hosting the 2022 Games went up in smoke after as many as 70 percent of people voted against the idea in a referendum (36 percent of the city's constituents had voted in the plebiscite, making the vote valid).

Hamburg's residents too voted comprehensively against the Olympics in 2024 – 51.6 percent voted against the Games in November 2015. The primary concern behind this was reportedly the cost over-runs that are inevitable to holding flagship sports projects of this nature.

Boston's bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics too collapsed over limited public for the idea. It was telling, however, that Boston had spent millions on the idea in the seven months it actively considered the idea of hosting the Games. The bid also ran into trouble after a disagreement between the United States Olympics Committee and the city's mayor Martin Walsh over signing a contract – called the Host City Guarantee – that would make the city's taxpayers pick up the tab should there be cost over-runs.

Rome's failed bid to host the 2024 Games could be pinned on politics. After all, the bid fell through after the anti-establishment mayor Virginia Raggi, of the Five Star Movement, refused to back the idea of hosting the Olympics. But Raggi had always opposed the idea of Rome hosting the Games, and yet she was voted into power. In a press conference, Raggi very pointedly said: "(We say) No to the Olympics of the concrete. And we say no to the cathedrals in the desert!" Her contention was that after the Games, the city would be left behind with redundant sporting infrastructure. Not to mention, a crippling debt. She also claimed that Rome had still been paying for the last time it held the Games, 56 years ago in 1960.

The reasons behind the collapse of Budapest's bid to host the 2024 Games were political as well as public opinion related. While the opposition party had campaigned against the bid, ordinary citizens – primarily students and young professionals – took to the streets to demand a plebiscite about the Games. By then, the opposition movement had already began a signature campaign against the idea of Budapest hosting the 2024 edition garnering nearly quarter million signatures.

A Greek tragedy and a Brazilian horror story

It has always been one of the IOC's contention that hosting the Olympics brings along with it the opportunity for the host city to invest in sporting infrastructure, which can later help the local residents.

But the state of some of Rio Olympics' sporting arenas just six months after hosting the Olympics were an eye-opener. The main stumbling block is that sporting facilities require an eye-watering amount to be poured into them annually for respiratory and upkeep. It would be absurd to use an Olympic size swimming pool to host school games. There were rare cases like Sydney 2000, where the country's Olympics organisers were able to envision future events at the Olympics venues after the Games were done and dusted.

This is the Maracana Stadium in February 2017.

This is the Rio Olympic Aquatics Centre in February 2017.

Perhaps, this is what Rome's mayor Virginia Raggi meant when she said 'no to the cathedrals of the desert'.

As for her other comment about the crippling debt, one only needs to look at Athens. The Greek debt crisis are being blamed on the cost of hosting the Games in the city where the tradition of Olympics began. The Games cost almost €9 billion and reports have pointed how just a decade later, the sporting facilities lie unused in Athens.

The last argument for hosting the Games is always the boost to tourism. But the Athens Games, according to some reports, increased tourism volume in countries like Italy, as people seeking the Mediterranean sun and beaches chose to avoid the sporting circus in the period of the Olympics.

Cost over-runs

How much does hosting an Olympic actually cost? Successive edition after edition of Summer and Winter Olympics have shown that the actual cost of hosting the glitzy event always overshoots the original estimate.

According to a working paper called "The Oxford Olympics Study 2016: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Games" each Olympic Games since 1960 has overshot its budget. The paper, co-authored by Bent Flyvbjerg, Allison Stewart and Alexander Budzier, gives astonishing figures behund each edition of the Games.

The study found that "the average actual outturn cost for Summer Games is $5.2 billion (2015 level), and $3.1 billion for Winter Games. The most costly Summer Games to date are London 2012 at $15 billion; the most costly Winter Games Sochi 2014 at $21.9 billion." (While estimates in the media have noted that the Sochi Games cost $51billion, the study has included only sports related costs and hence estimates that the Russian edition cost $21.9 billion.)

The costs have been burgeoning out of proportion ever since the 1970s when more and more sports came to be included under the umbrella of the Olympics.

According to an article on US-based non-profit think tank Council on Foreign Relations, Sydney spent $250 million in 2000 while Athens splurged $1.5 billion a year later on security costs alone!

It must be noted that all of these concerns led the IOC to address the issues in its ambitious Agenda 2020 proposal.

The roadmap included changes to the candidature procedure, with a new philosophy to invite potential candidate cities to present a project that fits their sporting, economic, social and environmental long-term planning needs.

But are these measures enough to convince cities and their residents to accept the Olympics at their home? That is an Olympic-sized question.

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