On Saturday, the International Olympic Committee will change the destiny of one city forever. Yes, tomorrow's the big day when committee members will decide whether Istanbul, Madrid, or Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. For the chosen city, it's a decision that could catalyze transformative infrastructure projects and long-term investment.
Of course, more likely, it will shackle the host city with cost overruns, underused venues and displaced and disaffected citizens.
The evidence is far from murky. Montreal famously took 30 years to pay off its swollen $1.6 billion Olympic price tag. An estimated 150,000 people, mostly slum dwellers, are being displaced in Brazil ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are expected to be the most expensive in history. And in 2004, cost overruns helped lead to Greece's economic collapse.
John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County* thinks he has a solution. It's on an island.
Instead of investing billions of dollars in new Olympic host cities every four years, Short suggests it would be cheaper and easier to create a sort of Olympics island that can play host to the more expensive Summer Games, at a minimum, year after year. The IOC could essentially take over an island – maybe a Greek island, Short suggests – and turn it into a permanent venue. It would function more or less like an international city-state, overseen by the United Nations, dedicated to hosting the Olympics and its training in perpetuity.
"There would be maybe big infrastructure costs, but there's huge infrastructure costs being borne every year. How much did the Chinese pay? We'll never know. How much did London pay?" says Short, who's written extensively on the Olympics, globalization and urban affairs. "We know the real costs are always underestimated. It's billions upon billions."
Short argues Olympics Island could be an ongoing experiment in sustainability and architecture, with facilities upgraded and new ideas tested, and with far fewer of the social or environmental costs than in existing cities. It could also standardize the sporting element, providing a stable setting and climate against which to benchmark athletic performances over time.
Most importantly, Short argues, it would eliminate the often massive costs to citizens in the host cities.
"The poor get screwed to host the Olympic games, because they often get displaced," Short says. "Up to half a million people were displaced for the Beijing Olympics. Why do we keep doing that when we could find a place that doesn’t require any displacement?"
Julian Cheyne empathizes with that sentiment. He was one of hundreds* of East London residents displaced ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics. He's now a vocal critic of the Olympics as a contributor to the website Games Monitor.
"In a sense, what the Olympics and other events like this have to offer is that they give this opportunity for property development," Cheyne says. "So the idea that these externalities for things like cost, security, evictions, people being moved are necessarily bad things from the point of view of a city is not true. The city may very well regard these things as being advantageous."
A permanent Olympic site "would certainly eliminate one of the most important motives for organizing Olympics, which, unfortunately, is profit," says Stavros Stavrides, an associate professor at the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece, who's also written extensively about the impact of mega-events like the Olympics. "Who would actually support this idea? Perhaps some idealist, with whom I deeply sympathize, but not the actual mechanisms that are behind the whole Olympic venture."
Indeed, when considering the Olympics Island concept, it's crucial to keep in mind that the way it works now is that the host cities themselves, often backed by their national governments, cover most of the costs of building and preparing for each Olympics. The IOC, which collects billions in revenue from sales of increasingly lucrative broadcasting and branding rights, contributes a comparatively modest amount. Business Insider has estimated that, between 2009 and 2012, the IOC contributed $5.56 billion to the Summer (London, 2012) and Winter (Vancouver, 2010) Olympic Organizing Committees, combined. Those two events cost upwards of $20 billion, and maybe even more than $30 billion, combined.
The IOC did not respond to an interview request for this article.
But even some cities see the advantage of an Olympic island. "The idea of a permanent home is not a new idea at all," says Barry Sanders, chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games. "For about 800 years the Olympics were always held on Olympia and no one seemed to mind." He says that in more recent years the Greeks have proposed the idea of returning the Olympics to a permanent home in Greece, but that idea hasn't garnered support.
But maybe it's time for another look. The Olympic Games have only ever generated a profit twice — both times when they were hosted in Los Angeles. The city was able to re-use existing infrastructure and venues to host the Olympics in 1932 and 1984. All the venues already had a built-in demand to keep them viable over the long term, and perhaps even for another Olympics: L.A. has already announced its bid to host the 2024 games.
Short concedes that there are powerful economic forces that would likely oppose his idea for Olympics Island. But given the massive costs and sometimes jarring human tolls, he still thinks it would solve far more problems than it might cause.
"I don't see any disadvantages to it, to be honest," Short says. "It just seems like such an obvious idea."
*Corrections: An earlier version of this story misidentified the university where John Rennie Short teaches: it is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, not the University of Maryland. Also, estimates for the number of Londoners evicted prior to the 2012 Summer Olympics is closer to 500, not "thousands" as we originally reported.