In 1990, the world was stunned when Athens, host of the Olympics Games of Yore and the first modern Olympiad in 1896, lost out on the bidding to host the centennial Games in 1996. Equally shocking was which city it lost to: Atlanta, best known as the Coca-Cola capital and the home of approximately 862,000 Waffle Houses. That the original Olympic host could lose to (at the time) the 36th largest American city—only 12 years after Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics—illustrated the global respect for the United States and its preeminent standing in the post-modern world.
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Suffice to say a similar upset wouldn't happen these days.
For the third time in five years, the U.S. fell short in a bid to host a global sporting event. The most recent disappointment—Thursday's failure to win the bidding for the 2022 World Cup—is particularly galling because America lost to Qatar. For serious. The country with a soccer program ranked 113th in the world will host soccer's version of the Olympics, instead of the country where soccer has the most potential to grow.
The decision raises a host of logistical and sporting questions (Will Qatar crack the top 100 in the world rankings before it receives its automatic berth in the 2022 tournament as the host country? Will FIFA survive hosting consecutive Cups in South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and Qatar without a major security incident? How can a World Cup take place in a country where drinking is restricted and it's illegal to be gay?) The larger issue is that the precipitous decline of America's global standing has led to it being shut out of hosting global sporting events.
Consider: Since 1960, the longest the U.S. has gone without hosting an Olympics or a World Cup is 20 years (from 1960 to 1980). With little support for a U.S. Olympic bid anytime soon, Thursday's vote ensures the current drought will last longer than that.
The lack of global support stands in stark contrast to the boom period of America-as-host from 1980-2002. In barely two decades, the U.S. hosted two Summer Olympics, two Winter Olympics, the 1994 World Cup and the 1999 Women's World Cup. American sports fans were treated to an embarrassment of riches, from "USA 4, USSR 3" to Dream Team 2 to Roberto Baggio hanging his head after his shootout kick sailed over the crossbar. At the same time, the U.S. ended the Cold War, presided over the economic boom of the 1990s and generally assumed the position of benevolent superpower (Somalia notwithstanding).
Then came September 11, and the Iraq War, and the unpopular foreign policy attitude of George W. Bush. Suddenly America was the super villain instead of the superpower, and the attitude of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee became downright hostile. The U.S. didn't help its cause with the Atlanta bombing in '96 and the corrupt backroom bargains that brought the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City.
The result has been one glaring failure after another on the world stage. New York's ill-fated 2012 Olympic bid collapsed when Charles Dolan blocked the creation of an Olympic Stadium in Manhattan (ruining New York's chances almost as quickly as his son ruined the Knicks). Chicago put together a strong bid for the 2016 Games, with a closing argument from none other than President Obama in Copenhagen last year, only to be eliminated in the first round of voting. Now the U.S. has lost out to a country smaller than Connecticut with antediluvian social norms and an average high temperature in the summer of 106 degrees.
Maybe global opinion will have shifted in a few years and America will be the proud host of the 2026 World Cup or 2030 Winter Olympics. If not, there are 195 countries in the world. It could be a while before the powers that be get around to us again.