Tuesday, February 11, 2014

OLYMPICS, DAY 4: Why There Will Never Be A Permanent Host

The snow-based events today have been struggling with... well, you can't call them unseasonably warm temperatures, because we all knew this was going to happen. Unacceptably warm is more like it. The women's downhill training run was cancelled. The women's freestyle skiing slopestyle and men's snowboarding halfpipe competitions were plagued by crashes often brought on by the snow turning to slush. Added to the litany of problems that have been identified so far, the corruption surrounding virtually every recent bid process, and the history of previous Olympic host cities struggling with the age-old problem of what to do with the facilities after the Olympics are over- a problem speculated to happen again once these Olympics are over- and there's been some call, at least in my circles, to designate a permanent host for the Olympics. Pick a host, or two, that everybody knows can pull it off, the reasoning goes, and just let them do it every time, reusing the facilities for subsequent Olympics so you never have to worry about them falling into disuse.

There are some big problems with this line of thinking, and I'll even leave out the one where the Olympic ideal is ideologically opposed to showing any favoritism towards any one nation in particular, which ought to be the ballgame right there.

First off, the proponents of this line of thinking should be reminded that the Olympics only happen once every four years. If you have no use for a facility after the Olympics are over, you're sure as hell not going to want to continue dumping money into maintaining it for the three years and 50 weeks out of every four-year cycle that the Olympics aren't in session. (Or seven years, 50 weeks out of every eight years, if you're designating two hosts.)

Second, just because the idea is to designate a host that is guaranteed to put on a suitable Olympics every time, that doesn't mean those cities would want it. The Olympics are expensive, expensive stuff. Never mind the reusable facilities, which aren't even all going to be as reusable as you think, as the progressive skill levels of the athletes may render some elements of the courses you build obsolete. There's labor involved, construction, maintenance, security, lots of security. There's ceremonies involved that you're not exactly going to be able to recycle every four years. The city or cities picked would have to continually repurpose their town to suit the whims of the ever-shifting Olympic program. If a new event is added that requires a new facility, the city would have no choice but to find room in their budget and a location in their area that could host it, no matter how strapped for cash they may be at the time or how short on room they are. If an event gets dropped that leaves a facility without an event, well, guess what, now you have a disused facility anyway.

The problem is only exacerbated if the events in question aren't popular in that particular nation. Let's say Chicago was picked as permanent host of the Summer Olympics. Events like basketball, soccer, track, these would not be a problem. The aquatics events might need something built, I don't think Chicago has anything Olympic-caliber (though that would inevitably be a new facility anyway), but once that's done they ought to be able to get use out of it. Events like team handball, though, or field hockey, or the newly-introduced rugby, these would be an issue, as these events have a small profile in the United States and there isn't much of a market for facilities dedicated to them. While those might be handled by recruiting some local high school to paint some new lines on their football field, the whitewater canoeing/kayaking course can be particularly problematic if you're not in the market for one. Chicago likely would not be keen to have to build and maintain that, or anything else that isn't a thing in Chicago, without any promise that it would get use outside of the Olympics.

Third, even if the more suitable cities did bid... nothing says they would actually win. Sometimes, the problem isn't that there's nobody that can handle hosting. Sometimes the problem is that the more suitable host loses. Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 2018 host, had bid on these very Games- and it's 24 degrees and snowing over there as I type this. In 1936, Berlin, and then not-much-more-suitable Barcelona, were the only cities to receive votes from IOC members. Among the other bidders were Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, both in South America, which ended up untouched by World War 2. Dublin and Lausanne were also bidding. Montreal had bid for the 1936 Winter Olympics- which they would have been a much better host for- only to watch them go to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Los Angeles had bid to host the 1976 Olympics (won by Montreal), and 1980 Olympics (won by Moscow), and were the only bidder for 1984. Toronto had bid to host the 1996 Olympics which went to Atlanta. Rome had bid to host the 2004 Olympics that went to Athens.

Fourth... you remember that whole corruption issue? It's bad enough when you're bidding to host one Olympics. Imagine how bad it would be when you're bidding to host all of them. You wouldn't be able to stop all the bribing. You'd get squashed like a bug. You'd be lucky if the Winter Olympics didn't end up in Dubai. Forever.

Fifth, you place yourself at the mercy of the political situation in whatever part of the world you pick. You never really can be sure when or where a war might break out. Take Sarajevo. In 1984, they hosted the Olympics (beating out Sapporo and Gothenburg, Sweden). From 1992-1996, they got shelled to pieces; the bobsled run was used as an artillery position. Berlin hosted in 1936, and you shouldn't need to be told what Berlin looked like a decade later. That's just within ten years. 50 years, you never know who it might be.

Lastly, even if it did make sense to have a permanent host, it would only be wanted by the city that won. There are tons of cities that sooner or later are going to want to have the Olympics to announce their presence to the world, or revitalize their image, or whatever. They're not going to sit back and let one city have permanent prominence over them; permanent home-field advantage. Other cities are going to want a piece of the action.

You saw that as far back as the ancient Olympics, which did have a permanent host, Olympia. You see, back then, sports worked largely off the Ricky Bobby principle: if you're not first, you're last. Respect for anyone who didn't place first was zero. You didn't even get your name recorded in the results. There were no team sports either; no coasting on the backs of more talented teammates. If you so much as came in second, no matter how unlikely you were to win in the first place, you often snuck back home in secret to avoid the jeering you were sure to get. There were, therefore, only a third as many 'winners' as there are now, with no provision for human-interest-story athletes just happy to be there. Either win, or you might as well have never shown up at all.

In fact, the inspiration for the ancient Olympics centered around this very principle. In Greek mythology, a man named Pelops wanted to marry a girl named Hippodamia, daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa (an ancient Greek town that had Olympia as a constituent), son of Ares. Oenomaus had offered Hippodamia's hand to whoever could beat him in a chariot race (the marquee event of the ancient Olympics), but for whatever reason, probably a prophecy that his son-in-law would kill him, he didn't really want to do that. So after beating the first 13 suitors, he killed them and put their heads on pikes. Pelops was suitor #14, and asked Poseidon for help. Poseidon duly supplied a winged chariot, and Pelops and Hippodamia further goosed things in their favor by secretly replacing the bronze linchpins in Oenomaus' chariot with ones made of beeswax.

Cheating was perfectly acceptable in those days; the only real crime was getting caught doing it.

What ended up happening was that, late in the race, Pelops had the lead but Oenomaus was closing in and making a play to kill him, which is when the beeswax linchpins gave out and Oenomaus went down; the horses ended up dragging him to death. After Oenomaus' charioteer (driver) made a play for Hippodamia, Pelops chucked him off a cliff.

That story ultimately led to all this. Note how nice it was to the runners-up.

This winner-take-all system today would tend to deflate a whole lot of athletes' resumes. The second-tier guys, the athletes who would be silver, bronze-medal quality but not quite gold- the Michelle Kwans of the world, really- needed a way to bulk their resumes up too so they could go home with something worth celebrating. Their solution was to go around to other events in the area, win those, and then play up how they won them. This wasn't especially difficult- most Greek cities had events for them to compete in. But over time, three specific ones emerged to be hyped up almost as much as the Olympics, with each of the four years in an Olympic cycle having at least one of the big ones, collectively known as the Panhellenic Games:

*In the first year of a cycle, you had the Nemean Games, taking place in Nemea in September.
*In the second year, the Isthmian Games, held in Isthmia (near Corinth), took place in April-May, and later on in August-September, the Pythian Games were held in Delphi.
*In the third year, it was the Nemean Games again, this time in the summer.
*In the fourth year, the Isthmian Games were held, again in April-May, followed by the Olympics in roundabout the same time of year you'd hold them now: late July, early August.

Further down the prestige rankings, the other towns holding competitions wanted their local Games to be just as big-time as the actual big ones, often promising athletes that their prizes for winning (oh yes, there were prizes for winning; don't believe that just-get-a-laurel-wreath garbage) would be just as good as the big contests. Ideally, they hoped to actually become one of the big contests. So even when everybody knew there was a permanent host, all the other cities still wanted a piece of the action. In the process, you essentially had the invention of the championship season.

Cities bidding for the world's sporting attention is a tradition thousands of years old. Why do you think that would change now?

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