With just 45 days until the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is not ready for prime time. Although the Zika virus has garnered the biggest headlines, the recent robbery of members of the Australian team has renewed security concerns around the Games. The city has not finished construction on the subway that hundreds of thousands of spectators and tourists will soon need. There is no adequate plan to rectify a number of serious environmental issues in the area, including waters so full of trash and sewage (below) that Olympic sailors, triathletes and long distance swimmers who ingest even three teaspoons of it may have a 99 percent chance of becoming ill. And just last week, Rio’s governor declared a financial emergency, saying that without federal aid, there would be “a total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management.”
As a sporting event, the Olympics are one (or two) of a kind and almost always great to watch. They are a chance for fans to see the best athletes the world has to offer, and a chance for athletes to represent their country. Practically, though, the Games are a massive undertaking that only a few countries are truly prepared for. Then, after all the costs, they are almost always an economic drag for the host.
A year ago, Boston realized just how daunting, and ultimately just how undesirable, trying to host the Olympics would be. After the initial excitement of the thought of a 2024 Boston Olympics, public support for the proposal fell rapidly. Two notable groups, No Boston Olympics and No Boston 2024, led the charge, pointing out that Boston was already a world class city with no need for the Games. Even though a Boston Olympics was supposed to be relatively low cost, the costs could easily spiral out of control, and the International Olympic Committee is known for corruption. Besides, spending tax dollars on the Games would divert money from countless other worthy uses while providing little to no benefit to the taxpayers in western Massachusetts. It was hard not to agree, and ultimately, even months after choosing Boston as its nominee, the US Olympic Committee agreed to end the bid.
But if Boston, a city with most of the infrastructure in place, a city located in the wealthiest country on Earth, a far better fit than Rio, didn’t work out, who will host the Olympics in the future? Will it be authoritarian regimes whose people have no choice but to go along? Or nationalists who are so eager to see their country on the world center stage that they are willing to accept the downsides? Will we have a permanent host, like the NFL has historically had for the Pro Bowl (a game so relatively small scale and unimportant that the comparison feels silly)? Maybe the grandeur around the Games, and therefore the cost as well, will simply be lowered if nobody is willing to pay it. Whatever happens, hopefully future Olympics will not be as much of a disaster as Rio threatens to be.