Uncouple the Olympic Rings

Olympic games

photo from Beijing Olympics opening ceremony: U.S. Army, creative commons license

The five interlocking Olympic rings symbolize the assembly of the best athletes from around the world in the quadrennial games. This enduring myth of internationalism hides an ugly truth: hardly any country can host the games any more. It’s too damn expensive. It costs between $10 and $20 billion to put on the games, and they generate maybe a quarter of that. The only recent games that broke even were Los Angeles and Barcelona, mostly because they used existing facilities, instead of breaking the bank building new ones.

Even cities that can afford to host the games may not want them. Boston withdrew its 2024 bid in part because the citizens didn’t want the massive disruption and high costs that success would bring. While the costs don’t begin with the arrival of the Olympic torch, nor do they end with its departure. In Beijing, the beautiful bird’s nest stadium costs $11 million a year in maintenance, and the Water Cube requires $1.5 million in subsidies over and above what it brings in as a water park.

Writing in Wired, Megan Greenwell, a former editor of ESPN The Magazine, has a radical suggestion: Pull those rings apart and have a number of “host cities” around the world, not just one. “Send beach volleyball to Rio permanently, where there are actual beaches. Hold the fencing competition in Italy, where many of its gold medalists are born. Move swimming to Australia, where it’s a nationwide obsession. Host soccer in South Africa, where the 2010 World Cup was a moment of national pride. Let each country bear the cost of one set of events at a time instead of dozens.”

Yes, we’d lose the entertaining (and expensive) opening and closing ceremonies, where the athletes of all the countries parade in. Instead, each country could have a small ceremony for the world’s best gymnasts, the world’s best cyclists. I may not be the only person who thinks the rabid jingoism of some of the fans is the Olympics’ worst feature. This approach might put the focus back on sport and on all the athletes’ tremendous sacrifices and achievements rather than on national glory.

The technology to do this is already here with online streaming. Time differences are erased. Viewing events on demand is the future. Someday, my family will actually be able to find equestrian.

Sharing the hosting glory would make an Olympic experience available to attendees from countries who would never be able have it otherwise. Kenyans who could see their runners.  Says Greenwell, “Giving them the chance to witness the Olympics firsthand would finally make the games a truly global event.”