Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
It might save money, but it would cost the world dearly in other ways.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Andrei Sakharov, one of the world’s greatest nuclear scientists and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident, told Western reporters that he supported an international boycott of the Moscow 1980 Summer Games. On January 22, 1980, Sakharov was ordered into internal exile. His arrest was one of the events that precipitated a boycott by 65 nations, including the U.S.
By the time that Russia hosted another Olympics, the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, it was a changed place. Yet Russia and Sochi were met with much of the same criticism as hosts as the U.S.S.R. and Moscow were in 1980. An escalation of human-rights violations preceded both events, which were attended by security procedures that were at once troubling and insufficient.
It’s a good thing, then, that nobody ever decided to make Moscow the permanent host of the Olympic Games. That would have been unthinkable in 1980, but less so a few years or decades before, when the Soviet Union was one of two global (and athletic) superpowers. If a permanent Russian games is still out of the question today—well, don’t tell Russia that.
Russia is more enthusiastic than most nations about bidding for the Olympic Games. Moscow was one of five cities shortlisted to host the 2012 Summer Games. Saint Petersburg elected not to submit a bid to host the 2020 Summer Games in order to focus on a bid for 2024 or 2028. Kazan, Russia’s eighth-largest city and the capital of the Republic of Tartarstan, is building itself up as “the cynosure of Russian sports” and a global capital of world sporting events. In addition to hosting recent championships in fencing and aquatics, Kazan will be one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Russia’s willingness to do whatever it takes to grab the rings is one flaw with the argument, popular in light of recent games, that the Olympics should be parked in a single city permanently. Who is to say that the fixed seat for the games would be Los Angeles or Paris or Athens, and not Moscow or Baku or Almaty?
The suggestion to give the games a permanent home bubbles up every 4 years. Charles Banks-Altekruse, a former Olympic rower who boycotted the 1980 games (and rather regrets that he had to), suggests a Swiss home for both the Summer and Winter Games. Writing in The Atlantic, Uri Friedman outlines the logic for several proposals, from an election of five permanent host cities (to represent the five interlocking rings that symbolize the Olympics) to a “decentered” games with events taking place at multiple sites around the world simultaneously.
There are advantages to each of these scenarios over the status quo, which asks a different nation and its cities to re-learn how to set up for the Olympic Games every four years, usually at an overwhelming cost to the host. Some of the perpetual problems with hosting the games, including security failures, cost overruns, and needless stadium building, could be avoided by keeping the games in one spot.
But a permanent site would come with some drawbacks, too. A single host would have a home-field advantage; nations on the other side of the globe would always be forced to watch events during the middle of the night. Plus, naming a host nation means putting all the world’s Olympic eggs in one basket. Disruption in a permanent host nation’s political or economic order could undermine the games for good.
A ruinous stretch of Olympics about 40 years ago—Munich in 1972, Montreal in 1976, and Moscow in 1980—makes the case for a permanent home for the games. Like the games 40 years ago, this recent stretch of Olympics has proved especially costly, with grievous human rights violations proceeding the Beijing 2008 Summer Games and the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. It may take years after the end of the current Calamity Games in Rio to assess the damage of Brazil’s extraordinary negligence and incompetence as Olympic host. And the prospect of corruption already threatens to undermine the 2020 games in Tokyo.
Given this stretch of disappointments, it is natural to reach for proposals that would restore some of the utopianism that the Olympics is supposed to inspire—and limit the logistics that make it a costly burden for hosts. But to do so assumes an International Olympic Committee that is regrettably bound to the global schedule as imagined by Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century, and not enthusiastically enabled by it.
In other words, reform would require an honest broker. The violations of migrant rights in Beijing, the corruption scandals in Sochi, and the human health concerns that will follow the Rio games for years suggest that the International Olympic Committee is not that body.
Any option forward seems untenable. The return on investment for hosting the games, in terms of national pride, venue reuse, infrastructure spending, and increased tourism, are not often worth the costs. Cities can hardly afford to meet the requirements of the International Olympic Committee to bring the games home. At least, democratic cities cannot afford it.
But authoritarian cities have no problem crushing migrants and squashing rights in order to build the dazzling trams and stadiums. With Western enthusiasm for hosting the games waning, supporters of a one-host regime have to ask whether they could live with a permanent games in Doha or Kazan. Why wouldn’t the permanent host be Moscow? After all, these are the cities who want the games now.