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A permanent address for the greatest show on earth?

Lalitha Sridhar. Photo: V. Ganesan

Lalitha Sridhar. Photo: V. Ganesan   | Photo Credit: V_GANESAN

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There are no net economic gains for countries that have hosted the Olympics or the World Cup

Another > Olympic Games are drawing to a close, their wake turbulent with euphoria and despondency. Not unlike the universe of athletes, who spend years in painfully rigorous preparation for terrifyingly elusive medals, the losses arising from the Rio spectacle far outnumber winnings for > Brazil, a developing nation with a recessionary economy left with a $20 billion bill by some estimates. Before Rio, the British tried to spin an afterglow for the London Games, but their numbers were widely questioned. In Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics, documents case studies to find “no net economic gains for the countries that have played host to the Olympics or the World Cup” and points to the indefensible costs paid by poor and middle income groups of these nations for such “exhibits of excess”. Surely, there is a way out?

The merry-go-round

The proposal of a permanent address for the Olympics is as old as the Games themselves. In fact, back in 1896, when the first modern Olympics were held, Greece’s King George suggested situating the Games in Athens permanently, and the American delegation supported him, but Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French educator and founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), demurred. In Olympic Memoirs, a frank first-person account of what it took to cobble together support for the physical and philosophic origins of the Games as we know them now, he objected to Athens “... acting as host every four years to this flattering and profitable influx of visitors”. He went on to add, “No one could seriously believe for a moment that Athens would be able to go on indefinitely every four years making the supreme effort required for the periodic renewal of the organisation and the financing [of the Games]”. Only 241 athletes from 14 countries participated in this event; about 11,000 athletes from over 200 nations compete at Rio.

Moreover, in an essay, ‘The Olympic Games of 1896’, published in The Field, the world’s oldest country and field sports magazine, de Coubertin noted that when delegates of athletic associations of “all countries” assembled in Paris for the IOC’s first session in 1894, “it was there agreed that every country should celebrate the Olympic Games in turn”. This session saw 78 delegates from nine countries (France, Belgium, Great Britain and Ireland, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the U.S.) representing 37 sports organisations. Note that the rest of the world, possibly because vast swathes of it remained colonised at the time, was conspicuously absent. Largely responsible for persuading recalcitrant local sporting bodies under powerful imperialist dispensations to give up their individualistic outlook for a grand vision of universal sporting excellence (he authored the ‘swifter, higher, stronger’ motto as well), de Coubertin did, however, have a stated belief in racial equality. Yet, not coincidentally, after the Second World War the Olympics have mostly been hosted by developed or non-democratic states.

Nobody could have fully foreseen the crippling costs modern ambitions would place on host countries, or the seismic socio-cultural effects of a dynamically complex world connected by the Internet, live TV and jetliners. Human nature, on the other hand, appears to have remained unchanged. Like de Coubertin, it’s as if modern planners cannot admit to the damaging socio-economic correlation between “the supreme effort” and the “flattering and profitable influx of visitors”, nor find ways to create a consortium of contributing nations for one permanent address for the Olympics, a single venue with the best of facilities, factoring for expansion and upgrading, with the opportunity to lead or organise the quadrennial event shared among all participating nations by roster.

An idea whose time has time?

The last time the idea found genuine currency was in 1980, when reports emerged that the IOC was considering a 1,250-acre span of land south-west of ancient Olympia, in the Peloponnese peninsula, which Greece was willing to offer as a site with extra-terrestrial rights and a neutral identity like, say, Vatican City. A five-man committee was to have presented its ‘top secret’ review at the IOC’s Baden-Baden meeting of 1981, and Lord Killanin, the Irish peer then heading the IOC, was quoted as saying that the earliest year by which such a venue could come to fruition was 1988. It never did.

Sporadic reports suggest a revival of interest in the subject. Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, appeared to support Greece as the permanent location for the Olympics at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier in June, but described it as “a great out-of-the-box idea”, which suggests an absence of mainstream heft. The Olympic Agenda 2020 — adopted unanimously at the 127th IOC Session in Monaco in December 2014 following “a year of discussion and consultation” in which 14 Working Groups sifted through 40,000 submissions generating about 1,200 ideas from the public — does not speak of it.

A permanent venue for the Olympics is not an original idea but its execution calls for a sustained groundswell of popular support that translates into a formal campaign, the leadership of which would require endless stamina and political acumen to prevail. It is the deficit of consensus, and the will to find it, which seems more insurmountable than acting upon a logical solution to a massive and recurrent problem that needs one imperatively.

srilalitha.s@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 5:13:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/A-permanent-address-for-the-greatest-show-on-earth/article14576563.ece

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