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Why the Olympic Games are headed for a downsize

Slower. Lower. Weaker: The signs are everywhere that the Olympic business has entered its late, declining stage


 
In this April 26, 2016 photo, the sun rises behind Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Broadcasters have already deemed the city's backdrop for the Summer Games the most telegenic ever. But no matter how good this teeming seaside metropolis looks on TV, footage simply can't compare with the experience of actually being here. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Starring at the 2016 Summer Olympics: Zika, an open sewer, street crime and chaos — lots of chaos.  (AP Photo, Felipe Dana)

Well yes, they shot the mascot, so that’s something different.

Not the actual mascot, not one of those poor shmucks who gets to spend months locked inside a faux-fur costume, striking amusing poses and terrifying small children. As of now, all versions of Ginga, the official cartoon jaguar of the Rio Olympics, are in good health, but an actual jaguar, named Juma, was shot by a police officer during a segment of the torch relay in Manaus after it somehow escaped and then approached the cop aggressively.

So let’s add that to the Zika virus, the open sewer of a harbour where the sailors and triathletes will compete, the street crime that has already made a victim of an Australian para-athlete and the financial and political chaos that includes a president facing impeachment, many other politicians facing indictments and the declaration of a “state of public calamity” in Rio de Janeiro, with a top state official adding that it is on the verge of “social collapse.” (Apparently, Brazilian politicians do not mince words.)

Extraordinary stuff… at least by degrees. But the notion that an Olympic city is going to hell in a handbasket in the weeks before the Games—that this time, for sure, all will be chaos—is almost as predictable as the script for the opening ceremony.

It happens nearly every time, sometimes in relatively benign form (the melting snows before Vancouver Whistler 2010), sometimes in more ominous tones. A lot of people thought that Athens was utterly unprepared to host the Summer Games in 2004, for instance, and that the expense of that great extravaganza would all but bankrupt the Greek government. Visitors to the city a few months before those Olympics saw what looked like a not-all-that-busy construction site. Yet somehow, with a few coats of paint and a bit of overtime, they got the place in shape, and the Games went relatively smoothly (though if you want to connect the dots, it’s not that tough to find your way from the 2004 Olympics to the 2009 Greek debt crisis.

They light the cauldron, and it disperses whatever that magic, happy gas is that sparks peace and bliss and pride and tolerance and contentment for 17 days. The citizens of the host country expunge all cynicism and find their eyes filling with tears; television viewers around the globe are inspired by a new generation of fresh-faced athletes, many of them competing in events which would draw almost zero interest in any other context; the networks and sponsors breathe a great sigh of relief knowing that their massive investment was sound; and the folks in Lausanne smile a secret smile. (Is that a pure and moral thing? Is it justified by trotting out Pierre de Coubertin’s 19th-century notion of Olympism? Nope. Is it worse than a host of other empty spectacles that move our hearts and empty our wallets in the name of something that may or may not really be for the greater good? That’s a great debating point.)

Probably—though not certainly—that’s what’s going to happen again. A few money shots of Sugarloaf and the big Jesus, a little dash of Usain Bolt, some local heroes, some profiles in courage, and we will all be swept away once more.

With one great big caveat.

There are signs everywhere that the Olympic business has entered its late, declining stage. The decadent past, when every Games had to be bigger and better and more extravagant than the one before—if you weren’t willing to promise that, then don’t even bother bidding—is done. So is the time when broadcast-rights fees and sponsor revenues appeared to have no ceiling. Perhaps it’s not quite the Austerity Games yet, but we are already at the point when very few countries in which the leadership is accountable to its populace will take on the financial and political risk of staging the Olympics. That was most evident in the bidding for the 2020 Winter Olympics, which everyone assumed would be going to Norway, hosts of the nearly perfect Lillehammer Games in 1994. But the citizens there said no in a referendum, leaving only China and Kazakhstan in the race.

The IOC didn’t quite hold its nose when announcing Beijing as the winner, because they knew that, just as with Sochi 2014, an authoritarian government will offer a blank cheque and put on a great show while brooking no dissent. Still, it was obvious that the end of the line is within sight. What’s left behind in Brazil, even if the Games themselves come off without a hitch, isn’t going to be pretty, and will serve as yet another cautionary tale. (And we haven’t even mentioned the forever-unbottled genie that is doping.)

The mantra is going to have to change from “bigger, flashier, costlier” to “reuse, recycle, downscale,” resulting in more modest Games, in places where they’ve been before, where the infrastructure already exists—yes, think Calgary 2026.

Someone will still pay the piper. But it will be nickels instead of dimes.


 
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