I’m pretty sure the infamous twin toilets of Sochi were not part of Russia’s Olympic bid. You will have likely seen the toilets, nestled together in the Biathlon Centre more closely than two toilets should be, without benefit of a wall to guard their users’ modesty. A $50-billion Games brought into snickering disrepute by a $50 problem.
In fact, I’m sure they weren’t mentioned in the bid Russia submitted in 2006, which was called “Gateway to the Future.” (Most Olympic slogans seem to have been created by 12-year-olds left alone with a pile of magnetic fridge poetry. See also, “One World, One Dream,” “Light the Fire Within” and “Passion Lives Here.”)
Instead, Russia promised that Sochi’s legacy would “set new standards for environmentally friendly development,” foster a new love of winter sport among children around the world, and deliver it all in a “sustainable, inclusive, environmentally responsible manner.”
It is no longer enough to say, “Let’s put these athletes in shiny suits and see which one can skate faster, and throw these other ones off a mountain and watch them twirl like maple keys to the ground.” It hasn’t been for a while. Every recent Olympic bid – except for Madrid, which nobly, if fatally, offered an austerity Games – has had to promise something bigger, bolder, greener, more multicultural, and crucially, more lasting in its wonderfulness. The legacy’s killing the Games.
What will Sochi receive for its $50-billion, apart from a whole bunch of stadiums that will, in the future, be crumbling, echoing halls that make a nice den for wildlife? (Athens has some pictures it can share.) It is getting power plants, hotels, roads, and a gleaming new resort that will serve as a gem in Vladimir Putin’s tarnished crown. It is getting a railroad that the New York Times, citing critics, called “a boondoggle that has created an environmental catastrophe.” Those critics, by the way, have been hounded by security forces, much like gays are persecuted in Mr. Putin’s Russia: That part of the legacy wasn’t in the “Inclusivity” section of the bid book.
Sochi’s $50-billion price tag, more than four times the original estimate, makes these the most expensive Games ever, but hardly an anomaly. A 2012 study from the University of Oxford showed that every single Games in the past 50 years, winter and summer, has run over budget, by an average of 179 per cent. Rio’s ambitious plans for 2016, complete with enormous infrastructure projects, are already under scrutiny for delays (not to mention the target of public protest for the expenditure.)
It’s probably too late to return to the simplicity of the 1948 London “thrift” Olympics, where athletes took the Tube to their events and the only swag on offer was a pair of free underpants for every male competitor. The Games have become too important for sponsors, for developers and for local politicians desperate to get big-ticket projects launched in an era of fiscal wariness.
Still, the pledges made to future generations are often laughable, composed of enough wind to power a sailing competition. In April 2012, I sat at a press conference while the head of London 2012, Sebastian Coe, announced the Games slogan: “inspire a generation.”
“Every one of those individual performances will create a symphony of inspiration that will create lasting change,” said Mr. Coe, a great Olympic champion himself. By this time, the London team had quietly dropped the legacy pledge that had helped them win the Games – to get one million Britons regularly playing sport. Still, it continued to tout the benefits for the young people of London and Manchester and Glasgow, who were expected to spring from their chairs and onto football pitches and tennis courts.
Or not. As a Times of London headline noted in December, “London Olympics legacy is a nation of young couch potatoes.” Two separate reports last year showed that sports participation among young people had not only not risen since the Olympics, it had in some cases fallen quite drastically.
Why not do away with the ridiculous promises altogether? Is it not enough to have some cracking sport, a few tears, a bit of backstage drama and rows of beaming parents? The greatest legacy of the London Games may be the BBC satire Twenty Twelve, which featured a “head of sustainability” fighting for projects like a giant, useless wind turbine. “If we lose that,” she moans, “what is 2012 about?” “Well,” a colleague offers haltingly, “sports?”