The Olympics Have Lost Their Appeal

More and more, the international spectacle has become synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes.

A hand bearing the olympic torch sinks beneath the sands
Getty ; The Atlantic

When Tokyo bids farewell to the Olympics this weekend, few people there will be sad to see it go. The Japanese public overwhelmingly opposed hosting the postponed Summer Games, fearing that it could exacerbate the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. In the final week of the competition, Japan broke a record no one wanted, reporting more than 14,000 cases a day—its highest since the pandemic began.

Whether staging the Games was worth the public-health risk or the staggering price tag that came with it will ultimately be for Japan to decide. But as the world looks ahead to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and debates participating in them despite China’s well-documented human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere, perhaps the question isn’t when and where the Games should be held, but whether the modern Olympics—an international spectacle that has become increasingly synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes—are worth having at all.

Fans of the competition argue that the Olympics are at least as important today as they were when they made their modern debut in the late 19th century. At the time, Pierre de Coubertin, the French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympics’ governing body, billed the competition as a “peace movement” that would bring the world together through sport. In the run-up to Tokyo, Olympic organizers stressed that these Games would be “a beacon of hope” and unity during a time of unprecedented suffering and isolation.

And, in some ways, they have been. Despite their somber opening ceremony and the absence of spectators, this year’s Olympics delivered on the pomp, pageantry, and athleticism that we’ve come to expect from the world’s largest sporting festival, including such notable moments as Italy and Qatar’s shared gold-medal finish in the men’s high-jump competition and the American gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from the competition, highlighting the importance of athletes’ mental well-being. But behind the veneer of pageantry and nationalism lie more troubling trends—ones that close observers of the Olympics describe as endemic issues the IOC has so far proved unable, or unwilling, to address.

The first problem is the sheer cost of the Games. While hosting an Olympics is regarded by many cities as one of the world’s greatest honors, it’s also one of the most expensive. With few exceptions, the Olympics have been a money-losing endeavor for their hosts—one that starts with cities paying tens of millions of dollars just to submit a bid and ends with them spending several times more than their budget. (Tokyo’s Games, for example, were initially expected to cost $7.3 billion; they’re now projected to total closer to $28 billion). As a result, many host cities are saddled with years of debt, not to mention the burden of maintaining abandoned stadiums and other white-elephant facilities that quickly fall into disrepair.

“Hosting the Olympics is an incredible boondoggle,” Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, a historian and the author of Dropping the Torch, a book about the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics, told me. “It’s a great way to lose money.” (An IOC spokesperson disputed this characterization, citing a study which concluded that the cost of the Olympic Games from 2000 to 2018 were covered by revenue. This report, however, focuses on the profitability of Games from the perspective of the Olympic Committees rather than the host cities. It also excludes capital costs such as transportation upgrades on the grounds that “they are not needed to stage the Games.”)

The bleak economic prospects explain why interest in hosting the Games has waned in recent years. Numerous referenda have shown that when populations are given a say in whether their city should take on an Olympics, the answer is almost always an emphatic no. But the economic challenge of hosting the games also explains another recurring issue: the weaponization of the Olympics by repressive states. After all, unlike democracies, authoritarian regimes don’t need to worry about referenda. And although the cost of running an Olympics is high, the Games grant their host country the ability to showcase its might and launder its reputation on the world stage.

Although the IOC has attracted criticism for its record of partnering with authoritarian regimes, that hasn’t been enough to compel the governing body to change tack. Part of the reason is that, in some instances, authoritarian states have been the only bidders left standing. Such was the case in the bid for the 2022 Winter Games, after Oslo, the favorite, withdrew over cost issues, leaving just two contenders: Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Games, and Almaty, in Kazakhstan. Beijing won.

But perhaps the primary reason the IOC hasn’t excluded autocracies from the Games is because it’s simply not in the committee’s interest to do so. According to a 2017 report by Thomas Könecke and Michiel de Nooij, “keeping good working relations with authoritarian governments helps the IOC to secure the future of its main revenue driver, the Olympic Games, thus providing for its own future.” Put simply, partnering with autocracies pays. “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” an IOC spokesperson told The Atlantic, adding that the choice of host “does not mean that the IOC takes a position with regard to the political structure, social circumstances, or human rights standard in [the] country.”

Critics of the Olympics have put forth a number of recommendations for reform, including giving the Games a permanent home in Greece, thereby honoring their ancient roots while also bringing an end to the bidding wars and overspending that have overshadowed their purpose of bringing the world together. But such reforms have largely been ignored by the IOC, which opted instead to put forward its own set of recommendations, including encouraging host cities to rely on existing or temporary sporting facilities and launching an Olympic TV channel.

“To say they are not willing to make significant changes to their business model is to make one of the most egregious understatements that I can conjure on this topic,” Jules Boykoff, an international expert in sports politics and the author of multiple books on the Olympics, told me. Having spent time in London, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo in the run-up to the 2012, 2016, and 2020 Games, respectively, Boykoff noted that many of the issues seen in the Olympics—including internal displacement, corruption, and greenwashing—travel with the Games. “They’re not Tokyo problems; they’re not Rio problems; they’re not London problems,” he said. “They are problems that are essentially imported into each Olympic host city when the political and economic elites of that city decide to put forth a bid.”

They are an Olympics problem, but they are also, fundamentally, an IOC problem. After all, the governing body consists of 102 members, comprising former Olympians, presidents of international sporting federations, and even royalty. It selects its own members, and makes no requirement that every country be represented. Indeed, most aren’t. Despite claiming “supreme authority” over the world’s largest sporting festival, it lacks external accountability.

The IOC “is completely undemocratic; it’s completely nontransparent,” David Goldblatt, the author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, told me. “It doesn’t appoint critics; it doesn’t listen to its critics; it doesn’t engage with its critics. And yet, it has a privileged position in the global governance of sport.”

Although the IOC is unlikely to heed its critics’ calls to reform the Olympics, or to cancel them altogether, it has proved its ability to change course—when it’s left with no other choice. The shortage of willing host cities has already prompted the IOC to overhaul its bidding process, swapping its costly bidding wars for an internal (and arguably less transparent) selection process instead. Climate change, and the impact it could have on the viability of future host cities, could also escalate the pressure to alter the way the Olympics are conducted. After Beijing (which is already ill-suited to host a Winter Games, relying entirely on artificial snow), the Olympics will then head to Paris, to Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, to Los Angeles, and to Brisbane, all of which are grappling with rising temperatures and extreme weather events including drought, wildfires, and flooding.

But the Olympics might be running out of time for reform. After Tokyo, “the varnish [of the Games] has been stripped off,” Boykoff said. “If you can’t do something now, especially with another very controversial Olympic Games coming up, in Beijing, well sheesh, when are you going to be able to do it?”