The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, are certifiably the most expensive and allegedly staggeringly corrupt.
Upwards of $50 billion has been spent to turn a place that’s been best known as a Black Sea beach resort, where rich Russians could warm themselves under palm trees during long Moscow winters, into a winter sports capital with ski slopes and bobsled runs.
There happens to be a long-standing armed uprising going on nearby, so a steel ring of security has been clamped around an event that will still make some of us dewy-eyed to see peaceful competition among the world’s great athletes.
Concerns about welcoming the world to an Olympics in the faux snow-capped heart of an authoritarian government have renewed calls for an old idea: Why not establish permanent sites for the Winter and Summer Olympic Games? Olympia, Greece, which hosted the ancient games, is often proposed as one site, along with Sydney, Vancouver and sites in Switzerland and Japan that have hosted previous games.
Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, they’ve grown from small-g games into an immense state-corporate-commercial enterprise that cities bid for and hope to use to herald national achievement and spur development. And, as has been alleged in Sochi, sometimes to enrich cronies of the state.
But lots of Olympic cities can point to what Alex Bozikovic of Canada’s Globe and Mail calls “an ever-growing herd of white elephants”: Olympic Stadium in Montreal; the buildings known as the Birds’ Nest and the Water Cube in Beijing; a dozen different venues in Athens.
Expensive, largely empty landmarks.
It took Montreal a generation to pay for the 1976 Summer Olympics. The 2004 Games in Athens added billions to Greece’s colossal and crippling national debt. The stadiums, ice rinks and ski runs that thrummed during Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Games host only graffiti today, and drip with rust and ruin.
If there were permanent Olympic sites, the bobsled runs, track and field stadiums, aquatic parks, velodromes and ski jumps that are now so often used and left behind an Olympics would be used and used again — and again.
The International Olympic Committee decided not to establish permanent sites when the games were awarded to Paris in 1900, and may not be interested now in getting rid of the international auction that rewards bidding cities with the Olympic Games, and the Olympics with revenue. But after 118 years, maybe permanent sites are an idea whose time has come.