London: From Athens to Sochi and on to Rio, stadiums and arenas in varying stages of decay are symbols of the crisis facing the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Budapest’s decision on Wednesday to withdraw its bid for the 2024 summer games leaves just two cities—Los Angeles and Paris—competing to play host to sport’s biggest event.
The decision by the Hungarian capital came after thousands signed a petition urging local authorities not to pursue what would be a multibillion-dollar project. Perhaps mindful of the wastelands that now mark sites of previous games, local politicians and bid leaders met and backed down. Having just two cities in the running for one of sport’s two landmark events—the soccer World Cup is the other—isn’t a good look for the IOC.
The Olympic movement “is at a crossroads which many would describe as the biggest crisis" since the Salt Lake City cash-for-votes scandal that threatened to topple the organization two decades ago, said Tim Crow, chief executive officer of London-based sports sponsorship agency Synergy.
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Just six months after Rio’s $20 billion games ended, several of the expensively built venues are struggling to find new occupants. Some, including the swimming venue where Michael Phelps won his record 28th medal, are already falling into disrepair. To make matters worse, the average age of television viewers is creeping up, and is now over 50.
Los Angeles, which hosted the games in 1984, only entered the race after Boston pulled its bid following concern that local taxpayers would end up footing the bill for a sporting event that lasts a little under three weeks. The German city of Hamburg also withdrew following a poll of its citizens. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi scrapped its plans upon being voted into office, saying the games “will bring only debt."
Eight cities initially expressed interest formally in hosting the 2024 games. Rio was picked following a final four city showdown in 2009, while 2020 host Tokyo beat two rivals in a run-off.
Hosting the Olympics is a “question that affects every taxpayer" and therefore should be subject to a referendum, Andras Fekete-Gyor, president of Hungary’s Momentum, the group that collected enough signatures to force a plebiscite, told RTL television on 21 February. Hungarian officials decided to withdraw from the race before a referendum could be held.
The IOC has pointed out the transformational changes its events can bring to cities, usually citing the impact on 1992 host Barcelona, which regenerated its waterfront. But it should also claim ownership of the failures it leaves in its wake, said Synergy’s Crow, whose company’s clients have included several Olympic sponsors.
“When legacy works through big infrastructure projects they want to claim all the credit but when critics say they cost the taxpayer billions they say, ‘that’s not our budget,’" he said.
Organizers of the Rio games still owe service providers millions of dollars in unpaid bills. The games there were also a bust for TV networks, including NBCUniversal, which pays far more to broadcast the Olympics than any other company. Viewership was down 17% on London 2012, and the number for 18-to-49 year-olds coveted by advertisers was down by a quarter.
IOC President Thomas Bach has been aware of the problems since assuming office in 2013. He pushed through the so-called Agenda 2020, an attempt to tackle mounting costs and a lack of interest among the world’s youth. That hasn’t stopped the bids for the last two games ending with just two cities in the final race. Beijing beat Kazakhstan’s Almaty for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Bloomberg
Zoltan Simon also contributed to this story.