When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gathered in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 to select the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics, it faced an unexpectedly challenging choice. The shoo-in favorite of Oslo, Norway had dropped its bid months before, leaving Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan in contention; this was troubling given each country’s authoritarian government, their lack of winter sports history notwithstanding. Faced with these two options, committee members eventually settled on Beijing. But this sort of turbulent bidding process is hardly an outlier: More and more frequently, democratic nations are shying away from hosting the Olympics due to IOC corruption, skyrocketing costs, and limited boosts to tourism and their economies as a whole. Taking their place in the international spotlight are authoritarian regimes – the most prominent examples being Russia and China – seeking to boost their public image and distract from internal strife. Democracies should be concerned about this shift in sports diplomacy, as the Olympics offer authoritarian regimes a platform for propaganda. Although they may not be keen to continue bidding for the Olympics – especially after the struggles Brazil faced in 2016 – democratic countries should embrace an increasingly popular alternative solution: a permanent host city.
Mainstream disapproval of the Olympics’ current nomadic format is not new, but its prevalence has increased in the last decade as more democracies begin to view the IOC and its Games as deeply flawed. Oslo’s withdrawal (coming in the wake of numerous other canceled bids) provides a succinct example as to why democracies are wary of hosting the Olympics. Most glaringly, the fiscal consequences are unforgivable for lawmakers and citizens alike. Since 1968, not one Olympic Games has hit its targeted budget – the 1976 Montreal Games, the most egregious example, cost 13 times more than expected – and the positive effects on tourism are frequently overstated. Furthermore, environmental costs, diplomatic tensions, and a future of dilapidated, unused stadiums have all led citizens to vote against hosting in recent referendums held by many possible host nations.
Corruption on the part of the IOC has also played a major role in dissuading potential bidders. The Norwegian press lambasted the 7,000 pages of requests from the IOC asking for private parties with the Royal family, special highway lanes for Olympic officials, and a plethora of other superfluous handouts. This lavish spending hasn’t helped the IOC’s reputation as spendthrift and opulent, especially during lean economic times. Further, allegations of bribery in the bidding process have plagued the IOC for decades. The 2002 Salt Lake City games is the most prominent example; leaders were indicted following a $1 million bribery scandal meant to pay off IOC voting delegates – shedding light on the frequent practice of greasing the palms of IOC members to secure their votes. Particularly in the wake of the corruption scandals dominating FIFA’s World Cup, many electorates are rightfully questioning whether the bid processes for high-profile events such as the Olympics are truly merit-based, or decided through sinister backroom deals.
But authoritarian hosts don’t have the same qualms as other nations when it comes to hosting. After Beijing’s debut on the world stage in the 2008 Olympics, many authoritarian regimes have gravitated towards the prospect of hosting a highly-polished spectacle that celebrates their nation on the world stage. Additionally, these regimes have no need to placate public concerns over cost. Instead, Russia’s Putin or Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev can take advantage of the IOC’s corruption to benefit their inner circle and solidify their power.
This is a troubling trend. In essence, bestowing the games on authoritarian governments offers tacit approval of practices ranging from political repression in China to media censorship in Russia. Public perception matters, especially when half the world is watching, and handing these governments such a golden opportunity to distract audiences with flashy showcases goes against the liberal, democratic values that the IOC and progressive governments claim to promote.
Liberal democracies obviously cannot avoid awarding the games to authoritarian governments while refusing to host it themselves, so they must turn to a more radical solution: a permanent host nation, a decades-old idea that is finally getting its time in the spotlight. While numerous influential parties have incentives to maintain the status quo, assigning a permanent host venue would solve both the fiscal and political issues plaguing the IOC and its potential bidders today.
Observers have entertained many variations on the plan for a permanent host venue, but most mainstream proposals follow the same general framework. The IOC would establish a neutral location for the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, with premium infrastructure for events and housing. This plan would not disrupt any historical precedent. The first modern Olympics only moved from Greece after 1896 because the founder of the IOC, Pierre de Coubertin, stationed the next Games in his native Paris. What’s more, from a purely athletic standpoint, John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, notes that a return to a permanent home, “could also standardize the sporting element, providing a stable setting and climate against which to benchmark athletic performances over time.”
Well-meaning observers sometimes argue against a purely neutral home venue due to its inability to celebrate local cultures on an international level. They say that without hosting in different countries, cities such as Barcelona or Los Angeles would not have been able to showcase their identity on the global stage. However, deciding who is allowed to celebrate their culture should not be made through a bid process fraught with corruption and overrun by authoritarian governments. Delegating the opening and closing ceremonies to different nations every Games, for example, would keep diversity at the forefront of the Olympics. Culture is an integral part of the Olympics, and a permanent host venue would only result in a fairer celebration of diversity.
From a more practical perspective, supporters of a permanent home for the Olympics face two steep, but by no means insurmountable, barriers: the IOC’s desire for profit and questions over where the permanent Games would be stationed. The IOC arguably has more to lose by maintaining the status quo than by altering their hosting process. The last two Olympic Games have come under immense scrutiny, as many blame the IOC for human rights abuses in Sochi and massive population displacement in Rio. New reports emerge weekly of dilapidated stadiums’ crippling effects on local economies, while the president of the IOC – a supposed volunteer – lives rent-free in a five-star hotel and spa in Switzerland. The IOC’s profit and image seem to be dwindling in the face of scrutiny from governments, journalists, and humanitarian watchdog groups. Assigning a permanent home, however, could help to reverse this current downward trajectory for the IOC. Officials could increase their control over the Games, enjoy consistent positive publicity, and still maintain their place at the apex of international sport. The Games’ associations with fraud, waste, and cheating, alongside the threat of authoritarian governments corrupting an image of fair play, would vanish. Abolishing the corrupt and bankrupting rotating system of hosting would be a large step towards returning their image to one of fairness, cooperation, and international goodwill.
While the logistics of assigning a permanent host location may seem complex at first, Greece remains a logical summer host country. Not only is it the ancestral home of the Olympics, but Athens also showed it had the infrastructure to host on the world stage during the widely celebrated 2004 Games. With no need to constantly create new infrastructure, the economic benefits to the country would be particularly helpful for an economically struggling nation like Greece, as noted by European leaders such as Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. Assuming the role of permanent host site is an idea the country has embraced in the past. In both 1980 and 1984, Greece offered a 1,250-acre site as a permanent home for the Games after boycotts in Moscow and LA. Developing a neutral haven for the Olympics offers the chance to avoid repetitive population displacement, while opening the possibility for sustainable facilities and infrastructure.
Fraught with battles from lobbyists to profit-hungry insiders, the road to a permanent host venue may stretch decades. But still, the IOC must prove that it has the willpower, as a multinational organization, to rebut dangerous political trends for the good of its mission and institute a prudent and feasible solution to an increasingly unsustainable problem. If the IOC and liberal democracies act in their best interests and value the impact of sports diplomacy, don’t be surprised to see the Games return home every four years.