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The Dark Side Of Being An Olympic Host City

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

After all the delays and uncertainty, the Tokyo Olympics are set to begin later this month amid high COVID infections and worry from the Japanese public and the medical establishment there. The pandemic, though, is not the only problem facing organizers. The cost of hosting the games has skyrocketed from original projections with a possible ban of all spectators meaning even bigger losses. Jules Boykoff is a professor of politics and government at Pacific University and the author of four books on the Olympics, and he has long written about the many problems hosting the Olympics brings to nations. Welcome to the program.

JULES BOYKOFF: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say that being an Olympic host city is not a great idea, even at the best of times, which we are certainly not in now. And you said that these games should be cancelled altogether. Tell us why you think that's the best way forward.

BOYKOFF: Well, I side with medical officials inside and outside Japan who have been clamoring for the Olympics to be cancelled. They're arguing that there is no need to take a gamble with global public health in the name of an optional sporting spectacle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you can see why it would be tough to cancel. It took the country years to recover from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that battered its economy. And Japanese economists have warned that scrapping them will bring billions more in losses.

BOYKOFF: Yeah, economists have also said in Japan that if the Olympics turn into a super spreader event, it could cost many billions more than actually the 30 or so billion dollars that they've plunged into the Olympics to make them happen. So it's just a complicated question to host an Olympic event, such a huge event with 11,000 people, athletes coming from around the world from more than 200 countries, none of whom are required to be vaccinated and to have an event of that magnitude in your city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, let's zoom out for a minute. Due to the pandemic delays, these summer games have already run around $3 billion over budget. That's a pretty big number. But the Olympics always seem to come with this massive financial burden. Why is that?

BOYKOFF: Yeah, I mean, I call it Etch a Sketch economics, where during the bid phase of the games, bidders say that the Olympics will only cost so much in order to get the public on board. But then when the games finally arrive, they shake up that Etch a Sketch and write a brand-new number that's inevitably much bigger. For starters, it's because of the fact that they lowball numbers in the first place. And then second, because you have these hard deadlines and things that you just can't anticipate, that allows construction workers, the firms that are doing the construction, to charge more as the deadline gets closer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's the taxpayers of those countries that end up footing the bill.

BOYKOFF: Yes. In the case of Tokyo, all but $30 billion that's being spent - all but about $6.7 billion of that $30 billion is from taxpayers inside of Japan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've written that the International Olympic Committee, or the IOC, oversees the most - and I'm quoting here - "pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructure in the world." Can you tell me what you mean by that?

BOYKOFF: Sure. During the bid phase of the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee is super friendly. But once that host city contract is signed, it has just almost zero accountability. There's no oversight. When they bust their budget, nothing happens to them. They hop on their planes and they head off to the next venue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Massive debt, though, isn't the only issue with the Olympics. Low-income and unhoused people are frequently displaced to make room for event spaces and to give cities a sort of more tourist friendly look. It happened in Rio in 2016 and Atlanta in 1996 and Seoul in 1988. We're talking millions of people over the years. What happens to these communities after the circus leaves town, so to speak?

BOYKOFF: Yeah. Well, I was in Japan in July 2019, and I interviewed two women who were displaced by the National Stadium building for these 2020 Tokyo Games. They were also displaced by the 1964 Olympics. So they were displaced twice by these games. They received a small settlement of money that didn't even come anywhere near their overall moving costs. And they were really highlighting to me that it wasn't just the money side of it. It was that they lived in a community, and it was fractured. A lot of the displacement comes at the expense of public housing. And so the Olympics roll in and developers use it as an opportunity to get rid of public housing. And if we've known anything about the modern era, we need more public and affordable housing, not less.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I can attest to that firsthand. The Olympics left Rio bankrupt with unusable infrastructure. So knowing how costly and problematic these games are, why do cities keep vying to host them?

BOYKOFF: There are billions of dollars sloshing through the Olympic system. The thing is, it tends to slosh upwards. I think you could call the Olympics an exercise in trickle up economics. In all my days studying the Olympics, I've never seen a grassroots bid where local working people come together to try to bring the Olympics to their city. But the truth is, fewer and fewer cities are game to host the Olympic Games, and they're just saying no to the Olympics. There have been numerous referenda in various cities around the world where people have had a chance to weigh in. And when they do, they say, no thanks. We don't want to put public money toward the Olympics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the solutions? Because, you know, international sport is important after all. And it is something that does make people feel good and feel proud about, you know, the athletes participating and the nation that produced them.

BOYKOFF: I'm a deep believer in the power of sports. I played professional soccer in the United States, and I even had the good fortune of representing the U.S. Olympic soccer team in international matches. So I'm not some grumpy academic sitting in my office with my smoking jacket thinking about ways I can destroy sports. I want to see the International Olympic Committee step up and be accountable. And I'd say that one of the main ways to make the Olympics better is to give critical thinking athletes more spaces at the table. We're in the middle of what we might call the athlete empowerment era, and there are many smart, critical thinking athletes who participated in the Olympics and would know how to make them better, not just for the athletes, and that should definitely be on the top of the list, but also for everyday people in the host cities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jules Boykoff, professor of politics and government at Pacific University and author of four books on the Olympics. Thank you very much.

BOYKOFF: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.