Financially bloated Olympic Games have become too big for one city

At least $15 billion has been spent on Tokyo Games already, most of it public money

A view of the National Stadium in Tokyo. ahead of the Olympic Games. Photo: Getty Images

A view of the National Stadium in Tokyo. ahead of the Olympic Games. Photo: Getty Images

 

If something is too big to fail it’s usually just too big. There’s probably too much at stake for the Tokyo Olympics not to go ahead in July. But lingering uncertainty underlines how staging 20th century style games in the new Millennium is an imaginative failure.

We are looking at up to 15,000 athletes going to a country with the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rate among the world’s wealthiest, where 70 per cent of Japanese don’t want the event to go ahead at all, and with predictions the whole lot could eventually cost as much as a staggering $25 billion.

This is in the context of a global pandemic that might be in some sort of abeyance in Europe, North America and other wealthy economies but is wreaking havoc through vast populations elsewhere in the world. Logically it’s an absurd scenario.

The positive viewpoint as the clock ticks down to July 23rd will be to frame the Games as some triumph of humanity. However it’s hard not to suspect such sincere narratives will be used as a convenient masking agent for unsentimental bottom-line calculations.

At this point Japan has invested so much capital that it’s got little choice but to be all in for this International Olympic Committee money-maker. At least $15 billion has been spent in organisation already, the majority of it public money.

It’s another chapter in a long tale of host cities left counting debt and budget overruns - with taxpayers inevitably picking up the tab - for the dubious privilege of staging the greatest show on earth.

The only recent Olympics that didn’t run major losses were in Beijing, an outlier suggesting the task of hosting thousands of athletes in one spot every four years is an indulgence more readily acceptable for those whose instincts run more to the autocratic than the sporting.

Starkly illustrated

But the global pandemic has underlined just how incongruous such a lumbering behemoth is.

The inherent vulnerability that arises from piling everything into one spot for 16 days every four years was starkly illustrated by the 2020 cancellation. It has taken a year to turn this colossal enterprise around and still there are no guarantees it will proceed.

That is bad news for the IOC and its’ reported income of nearly $6 billion for every four-year Olympic cycle. It needs Tokyo to go ahead. Failure spells big problems for an organisation getting almost 75 per cent of that income from broadcasting rights.

No spectators in July will have an impact in ticket sales but it is a tiny fraction of what is generated in media rights sales because this is fundamentally a TV show. That makes for headaches now. But in future it can facilitate much needed reform of the structure and cost of staging the games.

An Olympic 100 metre final looks the same on screen wherever you’re watching. There was nothing distinctly Brazilian about the lanes in Rio five years ago. When Ian Thorpe jumped into the pool in Sydney it looked like every other pool anywhere.

A screen narrows everything into its own confines so it doesn’t matter if you’re watching the action in Dublin or Dubai.

We live in a culture that has binned old presumptions of global communication. Yet the Olympic model of gathering athletes from around the world into one spot would be recognisable to anyone at the first modern games in 1896.

It has become a grotesquely inflated exercise in excess, waste and hubris, with the inevitable accompanying whiff of corruption.

The Olympics are a bloated strategic nightmare, some monstrous travelling court periodically settling its vast weight, expense and political baggage onto a rapidly dwindling pool of locations prepared to accommodate the IOC’s commercial brand.

Next year’s World Cup is more evidence of an industry that has grown up around presumptions of massive corporate events needing to be rooted in central locations. But if the action is a second-hand experience for the vast majority of its audience it is mostly irrelevant where it takes place.

That’s bad news for those perpetuating the status quo. But downsizing the current model, and having it ‘decentred,’ recognises that every egg doesn’t need to go into the one basket.

Properly using technology means the logistical flexibility it throws up has to be examined.

With 15,000 participants over two weeks in a single location, the Games are top-heavy and too big for one city.

More significance

Consideration could instead be given to early competitions across all disciplines over a period of time which lead up to finals held in locations where they actually mean something to a live audience. An Olympic soccer final holds a lot more significance in Buenos Aires than it does in Boston.

Of paramount importance, though, is that it looks the same on telly wherever it is. And the bill facing Japan underscores how vital it is for the load to get spread if future Games are to be sustainable.

It doesn’t have to mean that bidding processes are a thing of the past, but rather different locations bidding to stage different events under the Olympic umbrella. Finding a formula to balance those that are commercially valuable and those that aren’t shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

But, crucially, cities and national governments doing the bidding wouldn’t be so exposed to the logistical nightmare of starting from scratch and having everything right first time of asking. Competition can still be Olympic. It just doesn’t have to be financially calamitous.

It would allow a degree of manoeuvrability that athletes who are currently little more than pawns in a huge commercial nightmare can only dream of.

There has been uncertainty for months about Tokyo’s ability to stage the games. Yet they appear to be too big for any improvisational spirit to apply.

That’s not so much faster, higher and stronger as flabby, hulking and susceptible. And that is failure by any measure.

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