National Opinions

Fewer and fewer cities want to host the Olympics. That should tell the IOC something.

TOKYO - The Olympics are awesome, and the Olympics are broken. It didn’t take the Tokyo Games - the entirety of which took place while the host city endured a state of emergency - to prove that. Still, watching the International Olympic Committee put the Games on a fork and force-feed them to the resistant toddler that was Japan, well, it drove home the point about who’s actually in power here. Clearly, it’s not the people of the host city or country. It never is.

Of all the developments over the past three weeks - the rising coronavirus cases in Japan, the Games staged in empty arenas, athletes pouring out their emotions about how difficult it was merely to compete - the one that matters most slipped in before the torch was lit. On July 21, the IOC foisted the 2032 Summer Olympics upon Brisbane, Australia - sorry, awarded those Games to that coastal Australian city.

That move means the Olympics are still being granted to cities who spend billions of dollars to stage them, then are left with a questionable legacy. Tokyo’s original budget: $7.4 billion. It’s actual admitted cost: $15.4 billion. But this is all some manner of financial semantics, numbers that often don’t include pre-Games construction or other major projects. The only thing to know about the true cost is it’s never what the IOC says it is.

Whatever the numbers, this isn’t sustainable, nor has it been for decades. The further sham, though, is this: Brisbane wasn’t up against a slew of eager bidders, because a slew of eager bidders doesn’t exist. As Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who has written books about the IOC and its bidding process, said, “I think it’s really clear what’s going on.”

“In my view, what’s happened over the last 20 years or more, is they have a dwindling number of cities that enter - and then stay in - the bidding process,” Zimbalist said. " . . . The demand-and-supply situation has changed.”

Which is further indication that the entire Olympics should change. No more of this fleecing of countries and cities to stage a three-week party - and then vanishing.

For those keeping score, here are the future Olympics that are scheduled: Beijing in February (really?), Paris in 2024, Milan and Cortina in 2026, Los Angeles in 2028, and Brisbane four years after that. You’ll notice an unprecedented hole, the 2030 Winter Games, still looking for a home. There’s a reason for that.

The world has caught on to the ruse, and the Olympics need to respond by acknowledging their process is outdated and unnecessary. To land the 2032 Games, Brisbane beat out . . . who, exactly? We used to know precisely what cities were in, and there was actual disappointment among those not granted the bid.

But for the Beijing Games that sit just six months off, six cities originally expressed interest. Oslo; Stockholm; Krakow, Poland; and Lviv, Ukraine all withdrew, unable to muster public or political support. That left only Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing as the candidates. The IOC’s response: take the bidding out of the public eye.

“This way, they can’t be embarrassed by an inadequacy of bidders,” Zimbalist said by phone late last week. “They can’t be embarrassed by bidders dropping out. They can’t be embarrassed by having no bidders. We don’t know anything about how it happens.”

That’s telling, and so indicative of the way the IOC operates. Lest you believe that the organization that elaborately and expensively runs the Games should be trusted in either motivations or methods, here’s Thomas Bach, the organization’s president and a former Olympic fencer from Germany, on the lack of fans in the Tokyo stands.

“When you were in the competitions, in many cases you did not realize that there were no spectators,” said Bach, an utterance that is demonstrably false. “And maybe in some cases you could even experience the feelings of the athletes closer and better than being surrounded by so many spectators.”

Man, those fans. So annoying.

While the Tokyo Olympics didn’t change what the Games are, they exposed it further. The pandemic dictated led the Japanese government to bar fans in Tokyo and surrounding areas, which would seem to reflect the dire nature of the virus here. Through Sunday, there have been 436 positive tests associated with the Games since July 1. We’ll have to wait until we all return to the 205 countries from where we traveled to learn whether the virus spread because the Olympics occurred. Whether it does or not, it was a risk the IOC was willing to impose on Japan, and the world.

Still, for Bach to suggest that the lack of fans was either negligible or could possibly be interpreted as a positive is ludicrous - not to mention disrespectful to the zealots who, in normal times, would travel around the globe and pay money to attend the event on which he builds his enterprise.

“I’m not gonna lie,” American soccer star Megan Rapinoe said early in the Games. “That part sucks.”

And that’s the truth. With no fans, the Olympics were stripped down to what matters to the IOC anyway: television programming for the international networks that bankroll the entire operation. Tokyo wasn’t a cultural backdrop; it was a sound stage. And without that exploration of a nation’s history and people and traditions that could be offered when and if the world gathers together, there’s not much reason to move the Games from one new place to another.

“Why rebuild the Olympic Shangri-La every four years in a new city?” Zimbalist said. “It’s not 100 years ago, when you had to move the Games around to expose them to different countries. International telecommunications allow everyone to see them. So let’s have one city be the permanent host and stop pretending the Games are athletic events. They’re construction events.”

I have to admit: That solution is practical and logical and responsible. But I don’t love it. Even though a city that’s hosting the Olympics isn’t really a representative version of itself during the Games, exploring different countries and customs is part of the entire affair’s appeal. There is a palpable boost to the athletes of a host nation, and it turns out that’s even true in a pandemic Games with no in-person home support. Japan won 58 medals, including 27 golds, at these Olympics, new highs in both categories.

But the Olympics exist on parallel planes. It’s possible to be transported and inspired by the athletes and the competition, but struggle to marry that with the largesse and grift that’s become the standard to stage the Games. Moving the Olympics from city to city, requiring billions of dollars in cost overruns each time, is an antiquated premise. We can learn about other cultures by examining where the athletes came from and telling their stories.

So sayonara, Tokyo. Sorry for imposing. Keep the notes on your experience - and share them with the cities that seek future Games so they can be fairly warned. The Olympics shouldn’t be a road show that lays waste to a town. They should find a home so we can stop wasting money and land and resources, and just celebrate the athletes, whom the Games are supposed to be for anyway.

Barry Svrluga became a sports columnist for The Washington Post in December 2016. He arrived at The Post in 2003 to cover football and basketball at the University of Maryland and has covered the Washington Nationals, the Washington Football Team, the Olympics and golf.

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