Here we are still in the grips of a global pandemic and suddenly, mercifully, the daily headlines aren’t entirely about cases and deaths.
Instead, the Tokyo Summer Games are finally on, and we all get to share in the athletes’ inspiring successes. It’s a beautiful distraction.
But given that there is currently a movement in Vancouver to bid on the 2030 Winter Games, this is also the moment to remember why cities and countries need to change the way they approach the monstrously expensive task of being an Olympic host.
If you’re a government planning on prostrating yourself before the International Olympic Committee, with offerings of sports arenas that get used once, while selling your pitch to local taxpayers with promises of expanded mass transit, affordable housing and other goodies, you’re doing it wrong.
Times have changed. The era when the IOC could choose between many competing bids, each more gold-plated than the last, is over. Countries are no longer lining up for the privilege of filling the pockets of the IOC by emptying those of their taxpayers.
A series of studies by a team at Oxford University have shown how the cost of hosting a Summer or Winter Games has risen steadily. Tokyo is the most expensive Summer Games ever, at US$15.84-billion, according to the latest study, with a cost overrun of 200 per cent.
That study says the costs of hosting an Olympic games are inherently elevated by factors that include the “Eternal Beginner Syndrome” that comes with a new host every two years. And while operational costs keep rising for host cities, especially around technology and security, the IOC continues to refuse to pay for them.
Meanwhile, taxpayers have cottoned on to the fact that the infrastructure they were told they would get as a side benefit is often ill-conceived and rushed. Critics say the Canada Line, for instance – a rail link built to coincide with the 2010 Winter Games, and which connects Vancouver and Richmond to the airport – was underbuilt compared with its ridership capacity, and should not have been a priority at the time.
Taxpayers are furthermore puzzled as to why governments often won’t address pressing transit or housing shortcomings unless they can also write a blank cheque to fund things that are only needed for two weeks, and which in any case mostly enrich the IOC.
It’s like saying the only way to fix your home’s longstanding plumbing problem is to build a new house for the honorary consulate of Monaco. It makes no sense.
You could see this change in attitude in 2018 when voters in Calgary rejected a proposal to bid for the 2026 Winter Games. Proponents were unable to convince residents facing an economic downturn that the billions of dollars in costs to the city, province and Ottawa were justified.
Calgary was in fact the fourth city to join the 2026 Games bidding and then pull out midway, in response to objections from local voters. The event was ultimately awarded to an Italian bid from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.
But it was the second time in a row that the IOC held a Winter Games auction and found itself with only two bidders. The organization faced a similar dearth in 2017, when it was forced to simultaneously award the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games to Paris and Los Angeles, respectively, since they were the only two cities bidding for the 2024 Games.
Democratic countries are running out of voters who will expose themselves to a parasitic organization that nourishes itself on the tax dollars of its host, while raking in billions and leaving behind scars like Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a white elephant that took the city 40 years to pay off.
So, where does that leave a Vancouver 2030 bid? It could be a new type of Games for a new era, with all the sports drama and none of the financial pyromania. No additional infrastructure would need to be built; the existing facilities are barely a decade old.
That’s why the governments of Metro Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada should welcome a bid – with conditions. The first condition should be that Canadian taxpayers will contribute zero dollars to the Games. The IOC will protest, but its negotiating power has never been as weak.
In Tokyo, Canada is giving the world a series of new Olympic champions. In Vancouver, this country should be championing a new, financially sane model for the Olympics.
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