Competitors from all over the world are filling Rio's athletes' village. Leo Correa/Associated Press

Have IOC Missteps Cost the Olympics Its Soul?

Tom Weir

The curtain is about to go up on the Aug. 5-21 Summer Olympics, and when it does all the world will focus on Rio de Janeiro and wait to see whether these Games will be as chaotic and worrisome as some predict.

But rather than sit solely in judgment of Brazil as it seeks to stage the world's most complex sports spectacle, the scrutiny should be directed toward the International Olympic Committee.

For decades, the private organization that controls the Olympics has steadily veered toward an event that obsesses more about architecture than athletics and in recent years has littered the globe with wasteful stadiums and arenas that have precious little shelf life after the 17-day party ends.

The Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger has shifted to overbuilt, underused and senseless, and there's no disputing that the Games are rapidly morphing into an event everyone still wants to watch but hardly anyone dares to host.

The days of believing that hosting an Olympics will bring prestige and attention that make the spending worthwhile are long gone.

Montreal needed 30 years to pay off its debt from hosting in 1976. Albertville, in the French Alps, learned a tough lesson after the 1992 Winter Olympics about the Games not really having an impact on future tourism. Organizers for Nagano's 1998 Winter Olympics were so humbled by cost overruns that the 90-volume financial records of their bid were ordered burned. Athens' original budget for the 2004 Summer Olympics tripled, and 21 of the 22 venues built were left unused after the games. Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics turned into a real estate disaster when the condos that served as the Olympic Village didn't sell.

IOC President Thomas Bach, left, didn't discipline Vladimir Putin's Russian team for drug cheating as harshly as some expected. Martin Meissner/Associated Press

And IOC credibility took another big hit this month, on drug testing. This is an organization that repeatedly has promised zero tolerance for drug cheats, yet it took the easy way out when it learned just how thoroughly Russia manipulated drug testing while hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Rather than give the Russian team the ban it deserved, the IOC caved and left it to each sport's governing body to decide penalties. Instead of zero tolerance, we got zero action.

In the meantime, rapid retreat was the theme of the bidding process to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, as Oslo, Stockholm, Lviv and Krakow all shut down efforts after taking close looks at costs.

So what did the IOC end up with? A Winter Olympics that will be hosted by Beijing, which will never be compared to such quaint places as Innsbruck, Grenoble and St. Moritz, where the Winter Olympic legacy was built. The Chinese capital is hours away from the winter venues but will be connected by a high-speed rail system.

So much for making snow angels at what will be a commuter Games.

The same disinterest looms for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Boston bailed once a group of dedicated activists shined a realistic light on finances. Toronto also walked away, and voters in Hamburg quashed their city's candidacy via a referendum. Rome, where the mayor is adamantly opposed to mortgaging the city's future, is likely to follow suit.

Beijing's winter bid was written in part by Jeff Ruffolo, an American who got into the Olympics as a broadcaster but eventually moved to the business side. He also was involved in Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics and has worked on other U.S. bids. Ruffolo is a big fan of the Games, but he's decidedly pessimistic about the way the IOC operates.

"I don't think there's any politician in their right mind who would want to bring this event into their city," Ruffolo said in a telephone interview. "Rio is going to have one of the biggest sucking sounds, financially, that we've ever heard."

Ruffolo says the breaking point for many cities is the IOC expectation that all venues ideally be accessible by a subway system. That bodes well for 2024 summer candidate Paris, which has its metro system in place, but it burdens many other potential hosts with an immediate infrastructure project that takes years to complete. Rio is hustling to complete a rail system for the Games, but it may not be ready in time.

"The Chinese have the wherewithal to take these events and reconstruct their cities in order to do it," Ruffolo said. "The Chinese look at it as a way of remodeling their cities. But you try that in a democracy like America, and you'll never get anything passed."

With so many cities passing on even bidding for the Olympics, Ruffolo said, "These are warning signs to the IOC, or at least they should be. They should wake up and say, 'We better change our business model.'"

If the IOC doesn't change, Ruffolo said, "It's a dead man walking."

Rio's beauty has been overshadowed by concerns about crime and pollution as the Olympics approach. Felipe Dana/Associated Press

For any city that didn't already understand the perils of hosting a modern Olympics, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi made it abundantly clear. The price tag was estimated to have topped $50 billion as Vladimir Putin's government sought to create a winter resort near the Black Sea.

"Sochi has doomed the Olympic movement," Ruffolo said. "It's frightened away everybody from wanting to host."

So how does the IOC fix its problem? For starters, by getting more than a one-time usage from its host cities.

Sydney, host to the 2000 Summer Olympics, has most everything in place for another Games. Likewise Beijing and London. Tokyo is on schedule to host in 2020, and Paris could join a rotation if, as expected, it hosts in 2024. Rio, which also helped host the 2014 World Cup, would be the obvious ongoing choice for South America and could maybe get it right the second time around.

Los Angeles, which has hosted two Olympics and has bid for the Games more times than any other city, would likely be the leading choice for North America.

When past Games are assessed, a common reference point is the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, because they were staged with a minimum of new construction and finished with a surplus of more than $220 million. They were led by Peter Ueberroth, who was named Time magazine's person of the year for 1984 and who went on to become Major League Baseball's sixth commissioner.

Attorney Rich Perelman was a vice president for L.A.'s 1984 organizing committee, and he also wrote bids for the city for the 2012 and 2016 Games, but he has no role in the 2024 bid.

Peter Ueberroth led a successful and profitable 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, but his blueprint has not been followed. M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

"The goal in 1984 was to have a reasonable show—not the best show, but a reasonable show," Perelman said in a phone interview. "It was really a matter of discipline, and that's what Ueberroth brought to our community."

Then-Mayor Tom Bradley was also a key figure who maintained civic unity, and Los Angeles benefited greatly from having so many existing venues to house its professional sports franchises and top-level collegiate programs.

But it also had one other huge factor in its favor: no competition.

L.A. was the only city bidding in the wake of Montreal running up huge debt in 1976 and Moscow doing the same in 1980. Winning the bid by default allowed Los Angeles to make sensible decisions instead of trying to outspend bullish plans from rival cities. So the IOC gets no credit for L.A.'s stunning success.

"One of the things that was important is that you don't want to make a deal so badly that you make a bad deal," Perelman said. "You have to be willing to walk away, and that goes back to discipline."

Los Angeles, because of a Soviet-led boycott, also hosted a Games that included 140 nations and about 6,800 athletes. Rio is welcoming about 11,000 competitors from 206 nations.

"One of the things the IOC can do is make the Games smaller, and if the Games are smaller they're easier to organize," Perelman said. "You don't need more than eight basketball teams [12 will compete in Rio]. You don't have to have 35 runners in the 10K. How many marathoners actually have a shot at finishing in the top 10? Not all that many. And they built a golf course in Rio. Is that really necessary?"

IOC President Thomas Bach has promised reforms, but so far he can't point to any tangible results.

All of which leaves the IOC in a precarious position as Rio's time approaches.

There's a very real chance Rio will end these Games believing it would have been best to never have even considered being an Olympic city. Once known as one of the world's ultimate party destinations because of its annual Carnival celebration, Rio's credibility is now reeling from examinations of its pollution and crime.

That's the new reality for the IOC: Its once-prized event now might actually ruin a city's reputation.


Tom Weir covered 15 Olympics, including seven Summer Games, as a columnist for USA Today. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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