Has Rio finally killed the glory of hosting the Olympics?

At least the rings are pretty. Image: Getty.

The Summer Olympics signals are the most televised event on the planet. This year, like past years, the games are capturing global attention, as we watch gifted athletes compete at the very highest levels, and our television screens are filled with come-from-behind victories, spectacular feats of athleticism and strength, individual exertions, team efforts, harrowing failures and heartwarming successes.

But Rio also promises another set of stories. Will these games, like so many other games in recent memory, transcend the well-publicised problems of the lead-up and provide a spectacle so successful that we will forget about all the problems?

Or will the deep-seated problems reinforce an emerging counternarrative: that the games are a spectacular misuse of money run by an outdated organisation devoted to its own self-enrichment and a flawed model of sports events moving inexorably to failure and ignominy?

Rio may well be the landmark games of this new narrative frame.

Greater scrutiny

There have been Summer Olympic Games every year since 1896, apart from 1916, 1940 and 1944, canceled because of war. Over the years the Olympic Games have gotten bigger and more global. In 1896, only 241 participants competed from 14 countries. In 2012, there were 10,769 athletes from 205 countries competing in London.

Only two landmark games fundamentally changed how the Olympics were perceived and produced.

Berlin in 1936 marked the beginnings of the games as a global production. The Nazis, always intensely aware of the power and significance of spectacle, gave the 1936 Olympic Games the first multimedia coverage with television transmission, shortwave radio broadcasts and an official movie. The in-house Nazi cinematographer, the immensely gifted Leni Riefenstahl, paid homage to the physicality of the event in the film “Olympia,” which was released in 1938.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics, captured in the Leni Reifenstahl film “Olympia,” marked the first globally broadcast games.

The 1984 Los Angeles games, organized after the financial disaster of Montreal in 1976, marked the collapse of the old funding model and inaugurated the corporatisation of the games, when the local organising committee signed up 34 commercial corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsorship along with broadcasting rights now provide a steady flow of money into the IOC coffers.

These two landmark games heralded the start of global media coverage in Berlin and corporate sponsorship of the games in Los Angeles. But the increasing size of the games and the vast global coverage has also created structural problems.

As the Rio Olympic Games opened, a number of these problems were particularly resonant.

Flawed business model

Inequity. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), first established in 1894, was always organised along elitist lines with a lack of transparency and accountability.

It was headquartered in Switzerland to avoid any form of national regulation. The early members were rich, titled or well-connected – preferably all three. Today members of the IOC include Crown Prince Frederic of Denmark, Princess Anne of UK, Prince Albert of Monaco, Sheik Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait, and let’s not forget the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and Princess Nora of Liechtenstein.

The IOC’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Image: diluvienne/flickr/creative commons.

Little attention was paid to the needs or requirements of the athletes. The IOC was consciously insulated from any electoral process or effective control by athletes – and yet this committee was and remains the principal governing body of the Olympic Games. Each member gets to travel first-class around the world, and receives between $400 and $900 per diem.

In Beijing, special lanes whisked IOC members in chauffeur-driven luxury rides through the traffic jams. Meanwhile the actual athletes live in more cramped conditions and get paid very little.

In other words, IOC members lead a luxurious lifestyle funded on the backs of superb athletes who receive only a small share of the proceeds.

In the run-up to the games in Rio, we have heard stories of athletes swimming in polluted waters and living in substandard accommodations. Meanwhile, IOC members continue with their luxurious subsidised lifestyle.


Worst-case scenario

Mixed impact on cities. The IOC often touts hosting the Olympics as a force for good, and there are the positive examples of Barcelona and Sydney. But for many cities, hosting the Olympic Games means taking on expensive projects where the costs are always underestimated, the benefits always overestimated and the legacy is obsolete athletic venues.

Rio presents the worst-case scenario of costly overruns and inadequate infrastructure. As money is spent on the two-week event, slum dwellers are evicted and basic services for the majority in the city, such as adequate sewerage, remain unfulfilled. When land is cleared for a golf course, a minority sport in the country played only by a tiny elite, we are not in the realm of progressive urban redevelopment.

The large-scale eviction of close to half a million people in Beijing revealed the human costs. But Brazil is a more open society than China, so we can expect a more open discussion of a lavish global spectacle hosted in city where many people are poor and will remain poor after the Olympics.

Doping. Then, there is the doping scandal that will mar this year’s games.

Athletes have been taking performance-enhancing drugs since the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. But the industrial scale of doping by the Russian team raises serious questions about the commitment of the IOC to drug testing and proper punishment. With most of the Russian track and field team now banned, will Rio be the stage for a serious discussion of doping and drugs in the Olympic Games? And will the pervasive nature of drug-taking and limited drug-testing mean we have to assume people have won the medals only temporarily until proven innocent of drug-taking?

Rising costs. As the games become bigger, adding new sports and extending the number of competitors, the costs mount.

But the IOC model is to make the cities cover all the costs and take all the risks, while they control the revenue. The IOC maintains this power though the bidding process whereby cities have to compete to host the games. The arrangement favors the IOC as it forces cities to try to outdo each other.

But there is beginning to be a backlash. The Winter Olympics of 2022 will take place in Beijing because Norway pulled out of the bidding process and refused the IOC demands. And the US Olympic Committee pulled Boston as a US bid city because of fierce resistance from residents.

A force for good?

Corruption. There is the mounting evidence of continuing corruption in the IOC. In particular, the bidding process, as cities compete to host the next Olympic Games and IOC members get to vote for the host city, is increasingly prone to corruption as some IOC members turn their votes into hard cash, soft benefits and endless freebies.

The IOC has long promoted itself as a force for good. Its promotion of greener games is now undermined in the case of Rio, with waters polluted by raw sewage.

Cities where there is a democratic discussion are unlikely to host the games if the real costs and benefits are made public. The result is a growing use of sites in authoritarian and totalitarian countries. With every Beijing and Sochi, the connection between the Olympics and social progress is undermined by the games’ association with community displacement, environmental destruction, abuse of workers and transgression of human rights. Cities in China are now favored hosts for the Olympics as they deliver spectacular games without any public resistance.

The IOC charter claims to promote fundamental ethical principles, but in practice it has turned arguably the gold of our love of sports, great athletic achievements and stirring competition into the dross of a bloated, corrupt, money-making machine, devoted to a lavish lifestyle funded by public companies and media conglomerates, based on the skills of underpaid athletes and condoned by a watching public.

We love the games, but is that enough for us to overlook the malfeasance of a deeply flawed organisation that is running out of legitimacy and relevance? What will we take away from the next two weeks and beyond: the gold or the dross?The Conversation

John Rennie Short is a professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.