The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ousted Chicago in the first round of voting for the 2016 Summer Games host city on Friday, instead selecting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Good for Rio! South America has never hosted the Olympics, and unlike its competitors (Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo), Rio and Brazil actually need and desperately want the Games. Chicago and Tokyo are prominent world cities, and their international standing would be completely unaffected by hosting the Olympics. Madrid isn’t far behind, but they wanted the Games as part over their overall push to establish themselves as the economic center of southern Europe. Yet Rio is a crime-ridden, corrupt, poverty-stricken city that enjoys nowhere near the standing of any of its rivals.
And Brazil, while it boasts a relatively powerful economy, lacks the economic influence of the United States and Japan (US GDP is nearly 10 times greater), and lags slightly behind Spain. So the country of samba, Pele, and the thong bikini stands to benefit far more than the other finalists.
Focusing on Chicago, not only would the Windy City not have benefited from the Olympics, it likely would have been harmed by hosting the Games. Consider, every single host city of the Summer Games has lost millions, if not billions of dollars on the Games.
While the organizing committees claim to break even or even boast a profit (such as Los Angeles in 1984), that does not include the hundreds of millions to billions incurred by the city, state, or federal government. Beijing experienced a cost overrun of a staggering $38 billion, Athens $14 billion, and Montreal, host of the 1976 Olympics, just finished paying off its loans. The nations that host the Olympics are harmed as well, as most experience economic decline the year after hosting the Olympics.
Not only is the economic impact harmful, but the indirect benefits are scant at best. Economically, the only benefit for host cities (and even host applicants) is an increase in international trade – tourism is unaffected by the Olympics. And that increase in international trade is absent in major economic countries and in nations that have hosted the Olympics multiple times, both of which apply to the United States and Chicago. In terms of intangible benefits, host cities and nations report feeling happier after hosting the event. But Robert Barney, author of Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism, puts it in perspective:
Civic pride aroused from such an endeavor is fleeting and the monuments built for the spectacle in the form of stadiums and sporting venues shortly become little more than ghostly reminders of once glorious days. In point of fact, the historical record of long-term benefit from Olympic-related sports facilities is one indelibly burdened by maintenance and operation costs that rise well above user fee revenue.
Chicago residents seemed to realize this as the host bidding process evolved. Just last week support for the Olympics among Chicagoans was just 47%, with opposition at 45%, according to a Chicago Tribune poll. Protesters rallied even as the IOC met in Copenhagen, obstructing placement of pro-Olympic decorations. A group called Chicagoans for Rio was one group that adamantly opposed the Olympics coming to Chicago. Nationwide, the prevailing sentiment was ambivalence at best – few people outside Chicago even knew the city was in the running. New York’s bid in 2012 was even more fiercely opposed by the local populace, as the City Council effectively sabotaged the bid by withdrawing stadium funds.
Indeed, one gets the feeling that the Olympics, especially hosting the Olympics, are almost anachronistic to most Americans. The US has hosted the Games a record 8 times, 4 Summer and 4 Winter – far more than any other country. Most sports are thoroughly uninteresting to Americans, as evidenced by the dwindling television ratings. While the 2008 Summer Games drew 37 million viewers on its best night (in August, with no competition), such a number is hardly better that the top prime time network shows, and paltry compared to the Super Bowl’s 95 million viewers annually. Americans follow the medal count, but with a virtually insurmountable lead in the all-time total count (more total medals than the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place countries combined), even that statistic has become tiresome. Thus most Americans are bored with the Games, and ambivalent to hostile about hosting the games.
Which brings us to President Obama: why did he feel the need to pitch the Games when Americans – and even Chicagoans – were completely disengaged from the bid process?
First of all, let me be clear that I don’t agree with Republicans and other conservatives who have criticized the President for making the trip to Copenhagen – such criticism is both silly and hypocritical. Silly because a short day-trip (Obama didn’t even spend the night in Denmark) hardly distracted from national business, and hypocritical because President Bush attended the Games in both Salt Lake City and Beijing, and was even seen gabbing on an athlete’s cell phone during the Opening Ceremonies – hardly presidential.
Yet everyone – from the most ardent Obama supporter to his harshest critic – would agree that this rejection comes at the most inopportune time politically. The President has had few victories of late: his approval rating has plummeted by double digits to an anemic 50%, his healthcare proposal was a disaster, and more poignantly, on the international scene he was met with tepid approval at the U.N. and the G-20 summit – even President Sarkozy (of France!) criticized his foreign policy regarding Iran. The IOC’s rejection doesn’t harm Obama practically, but it does add to a growing string of failures since late Spring. Remember, Chicago was the odds-on favorite to win the bid – Obama was there to seal the deal. It may not be a devastating defeat for Obama but it confirms what many have believed for months: the “magic” is gone.
But more to the point, why did the President feel compelled to take a significant political risk by actively lobbying for the Games (the first time a sitting president has done so) when the people of Chicago and the American public were lukewarm (at best) about hosting the Olympics? I don’t know the answer, but I do know it was an ill-advised gamble that only emboldens to his critics, right or wrong, to brand him as a mere celebrity rather than an effective leader. Don’t expect an American president to lobby for the Olympics in the foreseeable future.
In the end, like most Americans I was ambivalent about hosting another Olympics. The US doesn’t have a passion for them, may be harmed by them, and certainly doesn’t need them. Let Rio have their fun and enjoy the spotlight for a couple of weeks – it may be one of the few chances they get to showcase their city and country in a meaningful way. As they showed by beating the Chinese in Beijing in the total medal count (and in every significant head-to-head competition except gymnastics), the American Olympic team is the dominant team, and will be for the foreseeable future. We all know the US performs well as Olympic host. Let’s see how our athletes perform in new exotic locations, where we the taxpayers don’t have to foot the billion-dollar overrun. Doesn’t that make everyone happy?