Thursday morning brought the world a small bit of gross but totally unsurprising news, when the Associated Press reported that Pyeongchang, South Korea, the city that hosted the Winter Olympics all of seven months ago, may be forced to tear down at least four Olympic venues that are now sitting empty and unused.
The venues ― a speedskating arena, a hockey center, a bobsled track and a ski jump ― cost Gangwon province more than $5 million annually for upkeep, and the provincial government hasn’t been able to get the feds to help pay for it. Meanwhile, the former ski course is now “an abandoned dirt runway, strewn with rocks and unused gondolas,” according to AP, which helpfully noted that prior to the Olympics, it had been home to a rare indigenous forest. (This is a good place to mention that Pyeongchang spent more than $13 billion on the Olympics, including more than $100 million on a centerpiece stadium that it immediately demolished after the games.)
The International Olympic Committee, the organization of grifters and profit-hounds that oversees the games and all of their excesses, is once again feigning ignorance and blaming the hosts. It’s not the IOC’s fault, of course. How could the organization that awarded the Olympics to a remote town in a country with zero historical affinity for winter sports have known it would all go wrong?
If only there had been signs, like the $50 billion price tag for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, or the incredible cost overruns of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, a city where a sprawling Olympic park now sits completely empty right next to the poor neighborhood that organizers destroyed because it was in the way, and where the public security regime established ahead of those games has left thousands of people dead.
If only there had been signs, like the modern Olympics’ incredible consistency when it comes to displacing poor residents ― more than 2 million worldwide since 1988, according to studies ― or when it comes to destroying the environment and leaving empty shells of venues that require costly conversions to become useful, in the rare instance that they’re re-used at all.
If only there had been signs, like the studies showing that the Olympics exceed their initial cost estimates 100 percent of the time, with final expenditures averaging double the originally projected costs, or the games’ undefeated record of driving blatant human rights violations against poor, minority populations.
The IOC knows all of this, of course, and it is all plainly evident to cities and the media and everyone else, too. And yet it keeps happening, because the world is gripped by a cyclical Olympic amnesia and some weird belief that we have to keep doing this.
We don’t, but every two years, the international sports media show up to another one of these events and spend three weeks broadly ignoring the litany of stories that have already detailed the disastrous effects the Olympics have had on city budgets, poor people’s homes, the environment and everything else. Instead, the media cover the games like the party-slash-sporting event they would be in an ideal world.
During the 2016 Rio Games, for instance, a member of an NBC-contracted film crew told me that anyone working for the Olympics’ biggest broadcast partner needed special permission to visit the city’s favela neighborhoods, which faced exploitation and police lockdowns because of the games ― that is, when they weren’t slated for actual destruction. His work station was a pop-up studio on Copacabana Beach, from which the favelas were easily ignored.
Eventually, though, the party ends, and the same old stories begin to trickle out again: The venues are empty, the budgets are exploded, the poor people don’t have homes, the sacred forest that was torn down is, well, not there anymore. Everyone shrugs, as if all of this is a reasonable price to pay to see a few people run fast. The reporters wrote the stories, they did their jobs ― they even spilled some ink calling for reforms to the IOC and the Olympic process, perhaps.
But still the next party must be covered. So the process repeats itself, over and over again, with hardly any of the media figures who parachute in to cover the ice skating or the 100-meter dash or the swimming or the doping (of course, the doping) bothering to connect the dots or reach one simple conclusion: The problem isn’t Pyeongchang or Rio de Janeiro or Sochi or Atlanta or Beijing. It’s the Olympics themselves.
None of this is an accident. It’s supposed to work like this, and so there’s no reason to believe the IOC official who told AP that the organization would be “ruthless” when it came to ensuring that future games would have only positive long-term effects on host cities. There is no reason to trust an organization that has consistently touted reforms that consistently failed to reform anything. The IOC’s “Agenda 2020” was supposed to usher in a new era of Olympism, but Tokyo 2020 is already a budget-busting environmental disaster that is displacing poor folks again.
In 2022, the Winter Games will return to Beijing, which forcibly removed as many as 1 million poor and indigenous people from their land or homes the last time it hosted an Olympics in 2008. This week, Chinese Olympic officials admitted that they wouldn’t address ongoing human rights concerns in the country outside “the context of the Olympic Games” ― as if Olympic officials in China or anywhere else ever have or ever planned to address such abuses inside “the context of the Olympic Games” either.
Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 may not create quite the same problems because those cities already have most of the necessary infrastructure. But the games will still have ill effects ― especially for the homeless who will be swept off the streets, the poor who will be gentrified out of their neighborhoods, and the racial and sexual minorities who will be subjected to even more scrutiny and brutality at the hands of law enforcement. A simple look at history makes it all too easy to foresee, and yet much of the early coverage of preparations in Paris and LA has fawned over the cities’ potential to prove there is an Olympic model that can “work.”
Some of that amnesia and apathy on which the IOC depends is beginning to break. The media today do a slightly better job of seeing the Olympics for what they are, while some cities and activist groups around the world have surveyed the carnage left behind and decided they want no part of the spectacle. But the Olympic blinders remain strong enough to keep almost everyone from admitting the most obvious truth about the games.
The Olympics are a scourge, a persistent disease that we know how to cure but refuse to because organizers, politicians and the media are too full of the conceit that the Olympics must exist. It’s that conceit that powers the belief that the Olympics can be reformed and carried out in a manner that reduces the disastrous impact they deliver with brutal, devastating consistency. Remove that conceit, get past the amnesia and it is clear they can’t be fixed ― that the cure is neither corporate-branded public relations pablum masked as “reform” nor some pie-in-the-sky plan to rotate the games among a handful of semi-permanent host cities.
“This is unconscionable, IOC,” tweeted USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour in reference to Pyeongchang’s post-Olympic struggle. And it is. But the cure, as Armour herself has suggested, is to end the Olympics, and the truly unconscionable thing is that we haven’t yet.