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Nobody really wants to host the Olympics anymore, and Tokyo demonstrates the danger

·Columnist
·5 min read
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TOKYO — There wasn’t a lot of drama last week when the International Olympic Committee awarded Brisbane, Australia, the right to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

It was the only city up for the vote.

It wasn’t that much different for the 2024 Summer Games. Only Paris and Los Angeles were interested. So the IOC gave Paris that one and then awarded L.A. 2028, which no other city or country had made a reasonable attempt to host.

Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, despite being nowhere near any mountains, in part because the only other interested city was Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The IOC was once the belle of a global ball, with famed and beautiful metropolises begging for the chance to host their Games. The last time Australia hosted — 2000 in Sydney — it defeated eight competing cities, including five finalists. It required four rounds of voting to prevail.

To the coveted goes the corruption, though, and the IOC's bid process quickly led to wining, dining and plenty of bribing — not to mention outrageous budgets, cost overruns and a string of white elephant projects left behind.

Those days appear over. The world is mostly done with hosting the Olympics. The IOC may go a decade without eight legitimate bids these days.

Even the IOC acknowledges that.

Japanese citizens aren't big on hosting the Olympics. Nobody really is these days. (Photo by Damon Coulter/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Japanese citizens aren't big on hosting the Olympics. Nobody really is these days. (Photo by Damon Coulter/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“[There’s been] a loss in public confidence in the Olympic Movement,” an IOC report concluded. “... Some cities found it challenging to secure government, private and public support and pulled out of the process, sometimes following a loss referendum [by voters].”

That’s what makes Tokyo 2020 such a dangerous Olympics for the IOC. The Japanese actually had the money, the facilities, the public/private backing, the technology, the organization and essentially whatever else was needed to stage the Games.

This is a vibrant city of 34.5 million, the largest in the world. If any place could hold an Olympics, it’s here. IOC president Thomas Bach repeatedly labeled it “the best-ever prepared city for the Olympic Games.”

Then COVID hit.

Officially, Japan says it spent $15.4 billion to host these Olympics, but private estimates suggest it is far higher. Either way, instead of offsetting those costs with tourism dollars, ticket and merchandise sales, and marketing opportunities for industries big and small, the virus wrecked almost everything.

Approximately $1 billion was lost in ticket sales alone. The hotel sector estimates between 700,000 and 1 million nights of reservations were canceled. Construction projects — such as the Olympic Village — that were to become private housing were delayed a year.

Absolutely nothing is working how it had been meticulously planned.

Was the pandemic just a dose of bad luck? Absolutely. That’s the point, though.

You don’t just need a fortune to host the Olympics, you need good fortune, and no one can guarantee the latter. So why risk it?

Among the Japanese, the Olympics are now wildly unpopular, with opinion polls running between 60 and 80 percent opposition to them being staged. The approval rating for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has championed this event, sank 9 percentage points just this month and is down at 34 percent according to a Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll conducted this week.

The Olympics aren’t the only issue voters judge Suga on, but it seems like no one in Japan wants to be associated with this event. Even Toyota, an iconic national brand and long an official Olympic sponsor, pulled in-country advertising around the Games.

If losing billions of dollars doesn’t faze politicians around the world, losing elections sure will.

What was once heralded as a chance to showcase your city or your country while throwing a once-in-a-generation party is now seen with great skepticism among the public.

Politicians may still want the Olympics so they can dole out deals to preferred contractors or get special projects constructed, but the public is skeptical, if not outright hostile.

The 2024/28 bidding process saw Hungary drop out after a successful “Nolympics” campaign was waged against the bid. Hamburg, Germany, bailed when 51.6 percent of voters opposed it in a referendum. Rome, Italy and Boston likewise succumbed to political backlash.

That has been the trend.

President Thomas Bach and the IOC know they have to reduce their demands of Olympic hosts now. That doesn't mean it'll make a big difference. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
President Thomas Bach and the IOC know they have to reduce their demands of Olympic hosts now. That doesn't mean it'll make a big difference. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Oslo, Norway, saw 55.9 percent voter opposition to a Winter Games. Krakow, Poland, hit 70 percent. Munich, Germany … St. Moritz, Switzerland … Stockholm, Sweden … all said no. Take a globe, spin it, place a finger down and you’ll likely find some place that looked at the IOC as thieves and the Games as a bloated waste of resources.

In an effort to solve the problem, the IOC changed the selection process and states that it will now supposedly work as partners — rather than crooked judges with their hands out.

It is particularly focused on driving down hosting costs (both financially and environmentally) by using existing facilities — rather than requiring cities to construct dozens of new venues and stadiums.

Paris will be 95 percent staged in venues that already exist. Milan, Italy’s 2026 Winter Olympics bid will be 93 percent, and L.A., which actually turned a profit when it hosted the 1984 Summer Games, will be 100 percent.

Maybe it will help, but the IOC’s reputation is a well-earned one of excess, waste and deceit. It’ll take decades to change that, if the reality ever changes.

Meanwhile, for the IOC, the Tokyo Games are a concern that can’t be fixed via new policy. Japan did everything right and is now dealing with everything wrong.

COVID isn’t the local organizers' or national government’s fault, but that hardly matters. It’s the Olympics, already struggling with their reputation, on which everyone is taking out their frustration.

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