What are the Olympics?

It is a busy season for determining future Olympic sites over the next few months.  The host of the 2022 Winter Olympics will be decided at the 128th International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on July 31st.   Cities hoping to host the 2024 Summer Games must officially commit to a bid by September 15th.  The 2022 Games will be decided between Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China.  Cities considering 2024 bids are Boston, Rome, Hamburg (with perhaps a Hamburg/Copenhagen co-bid) and Ahmadabad, India.

With a US bid under consideration, it means it’s time for the No Olympics crowd to start making noise and bid committees and cities to get thrown off track.  The conversation often ends up on topics that seem to have little to do with the Games, so I want to get to the core of what hosting the Olympics really is.

A good place to start is with some highlights from the Fundamental Principles of Olympism found at the beginning of the Olympic Charter.

Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

“The Olympic Movement…reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games.”

Ultimately, the Olympic Games is a “great sports festival” or a celebration of things universally considered positive; sport, the joy of effort, culture and education, social responsibility, ethical principles, a peaceful society and the preservation of human dignity.  Who can be against that?

Hosting a festival that includes athletes, officials, spectators, and media from all over the world is an enormous endeavor, but to emphasize what it really is, I’d like to turn to a simpler example: a neighborhood party.  Why would one normally host a neighborhood party?  Typically for universally positive things.  There might be some sort of competition (the joy of effort) like horseshoes, darts, pool, foosball, or board games.  It is a great way to get to know neighbors, build relationships, learn about people’s backgrounds and cultures, and build a more peaceful and harmonious neighborhood.  Those are all good things.

Presumably if a family puts themselves forward to host a party, they expect to gain some sort of benefit out of it, even if that benefit is just their intangible consumption value derived from the joy of hosting.  Other motivations to host the party could be; showing the rest of the neighborhood how nice their place is, getting to know the neighbors better, and demonstrating how great they are at hosting a party.  For newcomers, it’s a great way to be introduced to the neighborhood and establish a positive reputation.

Hosts can take many approaches to hosting the party.  Some might provide everything at no cost to the guests.  Others might host a “potluck” where each attendee is expected to bring something that will enhance the party and some might ask everyone to pitch in financially.  If there is a homeowners’ association, funding for the party might come out of the association’s budget.

The point is that hosting the Olympics is much like hosting a neighborhood party, but on a global scale.  If you think neighborhood parties are a good thing, then you should be supportive of the Olympics in general.  Of course there are many reasons that you might not want to host a neighborhood party at any given time (remodeling, short of money, too busy etc.), but most people embrace the concept of at least some day hosting the neighborhood as a positive, memorable thing.

Olympic legacy is a subject of interest among the IOC and potential and actual Olympic hosts.  This also has parallels to the neighborhood party.  If the party took place in such a way that the hosts’ home got trashed, it cost them a lot of money and trouble, and after everyone left all that remained was clean-up and repair expenses, it would be hard to find future hosts and the neighborhood party tradition would die.  The same thing holds for the Olympics.  For the neighborhood parties to continue, they have to be positive experiences and be seen as attractive events to host.  The same thing holds for the Olympics.

How each individual Olympic Games is organized varies to a great degree depending on the hosts.  More controlled economies who desire to host the Games tend to spend seemingly limitless amounts.  Estimates of the cost of Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014 are in the neighborhood of $50 billion.  London 2012 spent far less, but much of what they spent was public money.  They seemed to take the approach that since the enjoyment of the Games is a public good, private sector funding could lead to an under provision of the Games (either in the quality of the effort or just discretely whether they were selected to host or not), and it is government’s role to step in and ensure optimal provision.  Games hosted in the U.S. in 1984 (Los Angeles), 1996 (Atlanta) and 2002 (Salt Lake City), were largely privately funded and lower cost than other Games.

Consider these varied approaches to hosting in the neighborhood party context.  The Sochis and Beijings of the neighborhood might install a pool, a game room, and custom outdoor kitchen to impress the neighborhood, even though those things might get little use once the party is over.  The Londons of the neighborhood might rely heavily on the homeowner’s association budget to put on the best party they can.

What’s the physical legacy of the party?  In the previous paragraph, the Sochis and Beijings end up with white elephants.  But what if you’ve been planning to get a large screen television an Xbox console, a new grill, or a new serving set for a while, and the party provides an impetus to make those purchases now?  After the party, your house is upgraded with useful things that enhance your quality of life.

Infrastructure legacy of a neighborhood party?

Infrastructure legacy of a neighborhood party?

The overall legacy could include enhanced relationships that might improve your life professionally or personally. It could be impressing others for business and career opportunities or just having an easier time finding a pet sitter or handyman.  Olympic host cities benefit from similar legacies.

An important difference between the typical neighborhood party and the Olympics is that there is an Olympic movement headed by the IOC that is funded by the broadcast rights of the Olympic festival and sponsorship partnerships with commercial enterprises.  When the host of the Olympic Games is chosen, they receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the IOC to help pay for the festival.  In the neighborhood party context, it’s as if there were a well-funded neighborhood party organizing committee, and once you were named host, you received several thousand dollars to help finance your effort.  In that case, you might buy a better television than you otherwise might have or pave your driveway when you otherwise wouldn’t have.

At the core of it, the Olympics should be seen as a good thing.  The flaws in the movement are the same flaws shared by humanity and similar to problems we might see at a neighborhood party.  They are potentially unpleasant and inconvenient, but should humanity’s flaws result in us never trying to get together to celebrate some of humanity’s best attributes?  Likewise, hosting the Olympics should generally be seen as a good thing.  It almost necessarily follows that when we spend time focusing on how we will present ourselves to others, we end up improving ourselves.  People are often at their best when they are looking for a spouse or looking for a job.  For some, their houses are only cleaned properly when hosting guests.  Isn’t it the same with cities?  Bidding to host the Olympics provides a reason for a city to examine who they are and how they can best present themselves in a process that would likely lead to growth and movement forward.

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