Montreal 1976 was an iconic Olympics. Gymnast Nadia Comaneci achieved the first perfect 10. It was so groundbreaking, the three-digit scoreboard displayed it as 1.00.
Bruce Jenner scooped gold in the decathlon, as did Sugar Ray Leonard in the boxing ring. But it was iconic for another reason: being 720 percent over budget. The city took 30 years to pay off the debt for the stadium (nicknamed The Big Owe) alone and shoveled in US$17 million annually to maintain it.
The then-mayor Jean Drapeau had forecast: “The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.”
Every games since – apart from Los Angeles in 1984 – has been a financial basket case. Barcelona in 1992 had a 266 percent overrun, and Lake Placid’s 1980 winter games hit 324 percent. The spending on the spectacle that was Athens 2004 was a contributing factor in why Greece went bankrupt.
As analysis has become more detailed, politicians and city officials have rightly been apprehensive about bidding to host the Olympics. Instead of the usual selection of candidates and presentations to consider, now the International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes whoever it can get.
Five cities went for 2024, but three quickly pulled out. Left with two options and no bidders for the next cycle, the IOC agreed on Paris and offered the other bidder, Los Angeles, 2028.
London 2012 was lauded as being a joyous occasion, as Usain Bolt confirmed he was still the fastest man on the planet. But the stadium is a prime example of the ‘white elephant’ legacy that’s left behind.
English Premier League team West Ham United became tenants, but their annual rent didn’t cover the cost for the owners to stage their matches. West Ham’s initial offer to pay £300,000 to change the colour of the running track was turned down for commercial reasons.
Speaking in 2018, London Legacy Development Corporation chief executive Lyn Garner admitted: “The usage fee is extremely low. We could take the £300,000. It’s a drop in the ocean for the size of the losses we’re dealing with and will be dealing with for the next 97 years of this contract.” A renegotiation was done, but the point is clear.
So questions have to be raised about Tokyo 2020. It’s already been moved back by 12 months, but whether it will go ahead is still far from certain. IOC President Thomas Bach has confirmed if it doesn’t happen then, it will be canceled. He said: “You cannot forever employ 3,000 to 5,000 people in an organising committee. You cannot have the athletes being in uncertainty.”
But they are. We’re no nearer a Covid-19 vaccine. Scientists say that even those who’ve had the virus and have antibodies may not have immunity after a short period of time.
The global death toll is 345,000, but it’s yet to really take hold in some parts of the world, and experts warn of a second spike.
It’s likely spectators in Tokyo will either be banned or, at the very least, their numbers will be reduced to maintain social distancing. Massive corporations are haemorrhaging money and shedding thousands of jobs. Once governments end the safety net of supporting incomes, there will be millions facing financial difficulties.
So, surely now is not the time to scatter billions on keeping an Olympics on ice. Let’s pull the plug now. We already know the vast spending on the games is virtually guaranteed to make a loss, so this extra expenditure just digs the hole deeper.
There are also the athletes to consider. Not so much the highly paid stars, feted by the likes of Nike and Adidas. But those athletes who have day jobs and fit in sport around them. It would be the pinnacle of their lives to represent their country in the glow of the Olympic flame.
Is it fair to keep them hanging on? They’re investing in training regimes and maintaining their fitness to peak on the day of their event, when there’s a very real chance that the games simply won’t happen. So let’s give them the respect they deserve.
We should rip up the notion of Toyko 2020 being the tonic the world needs, something for us all to look forward to, cheering on our countrymen and women as they battle for gold. That’s an idealist narrative. The pandemic has wreaked so much destruction, both on human life and financially, and witnessing an epic 100 meters isn’t going to change that a jot.
Moving forward, the IOC could use the cancelation of the Tokyo games as an opportunity to bring the Olympics back to what it should be. For a start, it should redraw the model and cast off the need to rack up a mountain of debt for two weeks of glory.
It would be worth embracing the appetite for all things green, too, by making the games far better on the environment, instead of building massive structures that end up lying desolate, like a number of the Rio facilities used in 2016.
Post-coronavirus, some of the corporate sponsors won’t have the same level of funding, either. So, why not cast them off? They’re more interested in selling their products than sport anyway.
Let’s get back to what the Olympics should be all about: honest, fair and competitive sport, where everyone is chasing the dream of a medal hanging around their neck, as their national anthem is playing. Nothing else.
It all starts with Tokyo 2020. Lance the boil and shut it down.
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