Sports

After Beijing 2022, uncertainty clouds the future of the Olympics


As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing entered their second week, reports emerged of a controversy that symbolized a predicament threatening two of the globe’s biggest sporting events.

It had nothing to do with doping, dubious scoring, collusion or corruption. Rather, the Olympic flame — that emblem of peace and solidarity ignited quadrennially in Greece by the sun’s rays — had apparently been snuffed out.

In an echo of 2008, when a relay torch was rumored to have been extinguished during pro-Tibet protests in the buildup to the Beijing Summer Games, Chinese officials insisted the flame had in fact remained alight, and a snowstorm had merely “affected visibility.”

In truth, the Olympic flame has been flickering unsteadily for some time, its longevity jeopardized by waning interest and rising dissatisfaction.

U.S. cross-country skier Caitlin Patterson trains in Zhangjiakou, China, ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese capital was awarded the Games in a two-horse race with Almaty in Kazakhstan. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
U.S. cross-country skier Caitlin Patterson trains in Zhangjiakou, China, ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese capital was awarded the Games in a two-horse race with Almaty in Kazakhstan. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Fewer and fewer nations are bidding for either the Summer or Winter Games. Eight potential hosts dropped out of the race for this year’s event, leaving Beijing to battle it out with Almaty in Kazakhstan, another nation known for its state-muzzled media and human rights abuses that have led to bloody revolts in recent weeks.

The Summer Games have fared little better. Five of the seven cities bidding for the 2024 iteration withdrew their bids, essentially gifting the Games to Paris, whose sole remaining rival, Los Angeles, was compensated with the staging rights for 2028.

That arrangement was hastily engineered by the International Olympic Committee due to the paucity of alternatives, as was the case with the subsequent event in 2032, which was offered to Brisbane, Australia, as it was the only viable option.

The root of the problem is that few today can afford to host the Games. The first time an Olympics turned any notable profit was 1984, when commercialization in the form of broadcasting rights, private investment and sponsorship deals enabled Los Angeles to deliver a surplus of $215 million.

The National Ski Jumping Center in Zhangjiakou, China | HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS
The National Ski Jumping Center in Zhangjiakou, China | HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS

After civil unrest forced Tehran’s dropout, Los Angeles was the only option then, too, an outcome of Montreal 1976 suffering losses of $1.5 billion — debt that took almost three decades to pay off.

And while LA’s success in the 1980s led to an increase in wannabe hosts, most wound up like the Canadian city, drowning in red ink. Athens in 2004 overspent to such a degree that it sent Greece into economic meltdown, while a dozen years later Rio de Janeiro’s deficit topped $2 billion — the largest to date.

Hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention a disapproving public, Tokyo 2020 looks set to trump that. When final data is released in April, revenues are expected to be around half the officially stated $13.6 billion costs.

“There was meaning to the Olympics until about 20 or 30 years ago, but the model has aged badly,” says Ryu Honma, author of 2021’s “The Deadly Sins of the Tokyo Olympics,” in which he argues vested interests and other little-reported issues brought actual costs for Tokyo 2020 to around ¥3.5 trillion ($30.3 billion). “There’s no value in it now, especially for democratic nations.”

The snowboarding events at the 2022 Beijing Olympics attracted an international broadcast audience, but the tangible benefits to the host country have been limited. | DYLAN MARTINEZ / REUTERS
The snowboarding events at the 2022 Beijing Olympics attracted an international broadcast audience, but the tangible benefits to the host country have been limited. | DYLAN MARTINEZ / REUTERS

An increasingly skeptical public is demanding change, he says, adding that negative polls can very quickly dampen any enthusiasm a city might have for hosting the event.

Indeed, according to a study from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, only one of the 13 bids that dropped out of the running for Games to be held between 2022 and 2028 enjoyed support in referendums.

The essence of that outdated model comes in the form of appeals to the public to make sacrifices on the pretext of advancement, namely economic growth, says Kosuke Tomita, a researcher at Nippon Sports Science University.

If the argument is convincing, residents have traditionally “turned a blind eye” to any collateral damage — the stripping of protected highlands for the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, or the forced relocation of 200 Tokyo households to make way for the New National Stadium in 2020 being two domestic examples, he adds.

Kosuke Tomita, a researcher at Nippon Sports Science University, says the IOC's outdated model for hosting the Olympics appeals to the public to make sacrifices on the pretext of advancement, namely economic growth. | ROB GILHOOLY
Kosuke Tomita, a researcher at Nippon Sports Science University, says the IOC’s outdated model for hosting the Olympics appeals to the public to make sacrifices on the pretext of advancement, namely economic growth. | ROB GILHOOLY

“But the public won’t accept this pretext anymore,” says Tomita, who has penned several studies and books about the Olympics. “Voices have increasingly been rising against it.”

So loud have those voices become, that it is now increasingly difficult to see what the future holds for the Games, if indeed they have one.

The International Olympic Committee desperately wants to reverse the trend among democratic nations, which are seen as trustworthy custodians — not least of all during difficult times such as pandemics, Tomita says.

Yet, motivated perhaps by those countries’ flitting interest in staging the events, the IOC has increasingly turned its attention to nondemocratic states.

Some believe a systematic rotation of the Games around previous hosts with suitable existing infrastructure could help reduce the costs borne by a single nation in future. | DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS
Some believe a systematic rotation of the Games around previous hosts with suitable existing infrastructure could help reduce the costs borne by a single nation in future. | DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS

According to the Mainz University study, the IOC has sought to actively strengthen its ties with autocratic regimes because, in addition to the absence of any public dissent, or cost concerns, it provides Games organizers with an “insurance policy” for times when there is no potential host from a democratic nation.

“Despite the opposition and detrimental effects on its brand image… keeping good working relations with authoritarian governments helps the IOC to secure the future of its main revenue driver, the Olympic Games, thus providing for its own future,” the study states.

Tomita agrees, saying a shift of focus provides the IOC with numerous options — many, but not all of them, in nondemocratic countries. This is exemplified by other sports such as soccer, whose flagship competition, the FIFA World Cup, will be held in Qatar later this year.

“The subject of the Olympics having issues or having reached some kind of limit is a viewpoint expressed largely by developed nations that have been central to carrying the modern Olympics since their inception,” Tomita says. “But, if you look a little more globally, the Arab states, Africa and Southeast Asia are home to nations that still have room for growth, and mega-events such as the Olympics can be a way to help elevate them in the world.”

China's government has so far disclosed little about the costs associated with hosting the Games, but analysts expect it to be at least $3 billion. | MARKO DJURICA / REUTERS
China’s government has so far disclosed little about the costs associated with hosting the Games, but analysts expect it to be at least $3 billion. | MARKO DJURICA / REUTERS

A downside of such an approach, Tomita argues, is that it would likely result in the perpetuation of the current system, delaying the implementation of any meaningful measures to tackle lingering issues, such as economic costs, social displacement and green washing.

The situation has already forced the IOC to react, rolling out recommendations in 2018 that it says could save host nations hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It is a fundamental rethinking of the organization of future Games,” IOC chief Thomas Bach stated on the organization’s website. “This will lead to a new norm — from the candidature for and the delivery of the Games through to their legacy.”

At the heart of the new recommendations is the reuse of existing facilities, plus the introduction of an Olympic TV station, an idea perhaps prompted by the $2.9 billion that was reportedly pocketed by U.S. broadcaster NBCUniversal for its coverage of the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium during the women’s singles table tennis competition at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. Fans were barred from the venues due to concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. | ALEXANDRA GARCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium during the women’s singles table tennis competition at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. Fans were barred from the venues due to concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. | ALEXANDRA GARCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The IOC says it has already begun part of this process in China, with the repurposing of some facilities used in 2008, but author Honma questions the sincerity of such proposals.

Tokyo 2020 officials, he notes, reversed similar plans to reuse existing facilities in favor of building seven new ones. The move more than doubled the original budget, and left behind a little-wanted legacy that could continue to cost taxpayers for years to come, he says.

“Before the 1964 Olympics, they built a shinkansen line, metropolitan expressways and made other improvements that benefited everyone, even today, and contributed significantly to Japan’s growth,” Honma says. “Tokyo 2020 left behind no such thing. Despite saying otherwise, they created seven new venues, all but one of which is predicted to be in deficit to the tune of billions of yen per year.”

A trampolinist competes in front of an empty stadium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
A trampolinist competes in front of an empty stadium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The “oversized and difficult to repurpose” New National Stadium alone will cost taxpayers ¥2 billion per annum, he says, adding such inconvenient truths have been little reported by Japan’s “big five” media outlets, all of which were among the 67 sponsors of the 2020 Games.

Critics of the Olympics have presented new ideas of their own, such as creating a permanent home for the event in Greece, which would serve both as a nod to its origins and a solution to the costly bidding wars that seem at odds with the Games’ underlying principle of global congregation.

Some believe a systematic rotation of the Games around previous hosts with suitable existing infrastructure could also provide an answer.

Others have even suggested spreading the economic burden of hosting the Olympics by holding the events in multiple locations every four years.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, does not believe that continuing to hold the Olympics the same way and on the same scale is sustainable in the future. | ROB GILHOOLY
Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, does not believe that continuing to hold the Olympics the same way and on the same scale is sustainable in the future. | ROB GILHOOLY

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, agrees that change is needed, but that some essential ingredients will need to remain to ensure survival.

“I don’t think that continuing to do things the same way and on the same scale is a guarantee for the future,” says Hashimoto, a former cyclist and skater who took part in seven Summer and Winter Olympics between 1984 and 1996.

“But I think it also depends on how the host city or country views the Olympics and Paralympics,” she says. “If you want to spend more and more money on them, you can do so exhaustively, but a different direction would be to simply put all of your efforts into the sports themselves.”

This, she said, would bring the events closer to their pre-1984, pre-commercialization roots.

“I think we are already starting to see a move back in that direction,” she says.

The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Games. The Olympic flame has been flickering unsteadily for some time, its longevity jeopardized by waning interest and rising dissatisfaction. | BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS
The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Games. The Olympic flame has been flickering unsteadily for some time, its longevity jeopardized by waning interest and rising dissatisfaction. | BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS

Hashimoto recently returned from a field trip to Beijing, where she was struck by how the buoyant atmosphere contrasted with Tokyo 2020. Both were hit by the coronavirus pandemic, though the latter will be better remembered by disgruntled protesters “right up to the closing ceremony,” she says.

“There was none of that in Beijing — no protests, no criticism about costs,” she says.

This probably says more about the perils of dissent in China, where activists were reportedly rounded up by authorities in the buildup to the Games, undesirable social media accounts closed and athletes warned against commenting on the nation’s dreadful human rights record.

Yet, it might also offer an insight into what the future has in store for the Games — an all-smiles event held by authoritarian nations far away from the host city, using snow that isn’t real on protected mountains where millions of trees have been cleared and transplanted elsewhere. Then again, it might all just go virtual, with esports coming to the rescue.

“No matter what the situation is, no matter what form (the Olympics) takes, I think that people essentially want to see the potential of humanity through sports,” Hashimoto says. “As long as this aspect continues to appeal, I think the Olympics will live on.”

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