Hosting the Olympic Games can be a dubious honour. There can be significant and lasting benefits – but the burden of holding one of the biggest sporting events on Earth can also create and exacerbate problems such as debt, gentrification, city cleansing, militarisation of public space and environmental damage. And Rio is no exception: the government recently declared a state of calamity, as social and economic crises continue to deepen.
Preparations have dominated spending priorities for the past seven years, meaning Rio has been unable to allocate enough funds to crucial services such as education and health. Teachers and students have been protesting against cuts to education, and the state will continue to experience a healthcare emergency during the games.
A student spraying "take from the Olympics and invest in my school", outside an occupied school in Rio. Image: Ocupa Amaro.
The world is starting to recognise that these are the risks of hosting the games. Already, the citizens of cities such as Boston, Hamburg and Oslo have decided that the Olympics aren’t for them. It’s not surprising really – few people could honestly say that they prefer to see their tax dollars spent on velodromes, rather than hospitals.
This has left the International Olympic Committee (IOC) scraping the bottom of the barrel for host cities. The 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, where there isn’t even any snow. And the 2024 summer games are no better off – potential hosts are dropping like flies, with Rome looking likely to bow out of the race after electing an anti-Olympic Mayor.
We have a problem
The IOC recognises that there is a problem, and has set out a package of reforms in its “Agenda 2020”, which contains recommendations for host cities to exhibit good governance and tailor their Olympic bids to fit long-term sporting, economic, social and environmental needs. But these efforts haven’t impressed everyone: Olympics scholar Jules Boykoff sums up Agenda 2020 by saying it represents “baby steps where bold strides are required”.
The IOC’s Executive Director Christophe Dubi recently said that these reforms could clearly be seen at Rio 2016. But I’ve spent the past year conducting fieldwork on the preparations for the games here in Rio, and I’ve seen many instances of human rights abuses and corruption – it’s one of the major reasons that so many protests happened in the run up to the games.
Protesters march against the Olympics in Rio. Image: Antonio Larceda/EPA.
So how can the negative impacts of the Olympics be softened? One common suggestion is to have a single host city for the Olympic Games – perhaps in Greece. The problem with the Olympics in their current form is the huge amount of spending on new construction in one location for one event. Even spending on new transport infrastructure is often not directed towards the long-term needs of citizens, instead seeking to serve tourists for 17 days, with little thought given to the needs of the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill.
But, as Boykoff rightly points out, saddling a city such as Athens with this behemoth every four years may not be a particularly appealing prospect for the people who live there – particularly given the dire state of the Greek economy at the moment.
He suggests having five different host cities, and rotating the responsibility between them every five years. While this may be preferable for residents, it only really manages to share the pain around. A more radical reform is required.
Rio’s Olympic aquatics centre: ready for its 17 days of fame. Image: Adam Talbot/author provided.
A suitable solution might arise through embracing technology. In the 21st century, the vast majority of people experience the Olympic Games through the media – mainly television. As Maurice Roche notes, the Olympics are a global media event, which create a unique cultural space where physical distance and time differences can be broken down.
A global solution
So, why not host the games all over the world? Holding events in existing facilities around the world would allow the Olympics to capitalise on some of the world’s most iconic locations, while eliminating the excessive construction and disruption caused for host cities.
This would also solve another problem: for years, the IOC has been unable to include sports like surfing, which require specific environmental conditions to run. But by making the games truly global, organisers could not only feature a surfing event in Hawaii, but also tennis at Wimbledon, football in the Maracanã and other events in iconic venues around the world.
Holding sports where a fan base exists would also drive up ticket sales for events with embarrassingly low levels of attendance. And holding the events over the same time period would mean that very little changes for fans watching on TV. Most crucially, the degradation of human rights in Olympic host cities would finally be history.
The Olympics have the potential to bring the world together. But the glow of the games has been tarnished by terrible abuses of power committed in host cities around the world. As a global civil society, we should all stand up for a better Olympic movement – a mega-event fit for the 21st century. And what better way is there for the global community to reclaim the Olympics than to spread it all over the world?