Cancel the Olympics. Then Save the Olympics.
Coronavirus is just the latest reason to reform a broken international event.
Before we get into this post, my book, The Billionaire Boondoggle, turned one year old today. It’s as relevant as ever, so if you don’t have a copy, grab one here or at your local independent bookstore.
Coronavirus finally came for the sports world. After a player tested positive for the virus, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely on Wednesday night. The upcoming NCAA basketball tournament will be played in mostly empty arenas. The NHL and MLS are pondering what to do, with cancellations and postponements likely not far away. Other countries are taking similar, if not more drastic, steps.
But what about the Olympics?
Japan, host of the 2020 summer games, is one of the harder hit coronavirus countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has it at a level two travel advisory, behind only China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. But thus far, both Japan and the International Olympic Committee are sticking to their guns regarding holding the games as scheduled in July, according to a statement released Thursday.
That should change. The Olympics should be postponed, if not canceled. And then this should be an opportunity to finally stop countries from throwing billions of dollars every two years at an international sporting event with no real economic payoff.
While July may feel like a long time from now, we don’t have much of a sense of the course the disease will take or if there will be second or even third waves after the initial outbreak is contained. More importantly, though, lots of qualifying events for the 2020 Olympics are happening now and in the next few weeks. They should absolutely be canceled, like Italy’s were, so athletes from all over a country don’t have to travel. A commitment now that the 2020 games won’t happen as scheduled would make a host of decisions around the globe much easier.
But even if the disease is quickly contained and the 2020 games can happen on time, the coronavirus episode shows the folly of the Olympics’ current structure. Japan is on pace to spend some $26 billion preparing for the games, and like with every Olympics ever, went significantly over its original cost estimates. A cancellation will mean Japan is simply out some of that money; the IOC and the Tokyo host committee do have insurance, but it’s unclear what it would cover. It presumably is not the whole cost to Japanese federal and local governments, since the host committee doesn’t even admit to many costs the latter have borne.
Next time, a global disaster might happen days or even hours before an Olympics begins, leaving the host holding nothing but the bag.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Simply creating permanent sites for the games would prevent every new host from having to build its Olympic infrastructure mostly from scratch at an exorbitant cost. IOC member countries can all pay in for the upfront costs once, in amounts dependent on the size of their economies, and then smaller amounts for maintenance after that.
I’d put the summer games permanently in Athens, Greece, and the winter games in Vancouver, Canada. And then we’d be done with at least some of the corporate grift that the modern games have become, with the public in country after country paying billions of dollars for stuff they don’t need so that corporate sponsors can have two weeks of advertisements in tax-free zones.
Of course, this is an unlikely outcome, and the Olympic-industrial complex will likely keep on rolling no matter what happens to Tokyo. But if a global pandemic isn’t the time to re-evaluate the ridiculous things done in our name every day, I don’t know when is.
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— Pat Garofalo