BERLIN – Last weekend, the German city-state of Hamburg joined a distinguished club of “NOlympians,” voting by 52 percent against seeking to host the 2024 Olympics. Perhaps making such votes obligatory for all bidding cities could be the first step toward restoring the tattered reputation of global sporting events.
The history of Olympic plebiscites began on Dec. 10, 2002, when Vancouver’s city council decided to hold a non-binding public vote on whether the Canadian city should bid for the 2010 Olympics. Ten weeks later, the bid’s supporters carried the day by 64 percent to 36 percent. It was a resounding victory, but, as Harry Hiller pointed out in his 2012 book “Host cities and the Olympics: An Interactionist Approach”: “The plebiscite legitimated the Olympics as controversial from a city resident’s point of view. If it was necessary to take a vote, the implication was that there must be something that was not obviously acceptable about hosting the Olympics.”
In later years, such votes were less successful for the advocates of Olympic bids. In 2014, bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics were rejected by 70 percent of the voters in Krakow, Poland; 53 percent in St. Moritz and Davos, Switzerland; and 52 percent in Munich, Germany. Oslo pulled its bid after grassroots votes in the main political parties failed to support it.
Boston planned to hold a referendum on a 2024 Summer Olympics bid early next year but withdrew from the bidding before citizens could vote: Public support was so low the referendum appeared pointless.
None of the remaining 2024 bidders — Paris, Rome, Budapest and Los Angeles — plans to hold a referendum. They should, though. It’s a shame that the procedure is not part of the International Olympic Committee’s “Olympic Agenda 2020” — a set of proposals aimed at making it more palatable for cities to host the world’s biggest sporting event after the horrendous, game-changing expense and disruption of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s showcase Winter Games in Sochi last year.
Putin’s ill-fated $50 billion demonstration of Russian resurgence appears to have been the turning point for the plebiscites. Yet its forbidding absolute cost was all that made it unique. Cost overruns are standard for the Olympics: On average, they have reached 252 percent for Summer Olympics and 135 percent for Winter Games before Sochi.
Hamburg’s bidding committee actually had a relatively watertight plan to spend €7.4 billion ($7.8 billion): The Bund der Steuerzahler, the German taxpayers’ lobby, known for its painstaking analysis of government programs, examined it and found nothing amiss. It also had better reasons than Paris, which attracted 36 million visitors last year, or Rome with its 25 million visitors, to want the games. Hamburg is the richest federal state in Germany, but only 12 million people visited it last year, compared with Berlin’s 29 million. Hamburg needed putting on the map.
Berlin had also considered bidding for the 2024 games, but public support was lukewarm in the capital city from the start, so the German Olympic Committee chose Hamburg, where polls seemed favorable to a bid. The polls turned out to be wrong — or perhaps NOlympia, the anti-Olympic campaign, made a compelling case.
It reminded residents of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, the grandiose concert venue that has been under construction since 2007 and is still not finished despite the original plan to open it in 2010. It spoke of inevitable gentrification, which follows Olympics everywhere. It mentioned this year’s flood of asylum seekers: 45,485 arrived in Hamburg between January and October, and 15,000 of them were in need of accommodations, many living in tents. It argued the big sports clubs would get the use of the new stadiums, but kids living in the poorer areas of town wouldn’t benefit. It stressed the city would have to go heavily into debt and keep paying long after the athletes leave.
Local authorities love tourists, but local residents often regard them as an infestation, and some leftist mayors, notably Ada Colau in Barcelona, back them on that. Besides, it’s not clear whether expectations of a tourist boom can be sustained. A study done three years after the Vancouver Olympics found that the event failed to bring more travelers to the city or make it more attractive for Canadians to live in. The games’ biggest benefits are arguably transport network upgrades that could have been funded without the Olympics, had there been political will. Perhaps had the people of Vancouver known this in advance, and had they been offered a choice of hosting the Olympics or just getting better highways and commuter trains, they would have voted differently in 2003.
Twelve years later, people apparently have better information — or perhaps different priorities. That’s why the IOC should require bidding cities to hold plebiscites. It may well turn out that the only positive results will come from countries where self-aggrandizing political leaders know how to bend public opinion to their will, or how to rig the votes.
After a couple more contests like the one for the 2022 Winter Games — between Almaty, Kazakhstan and the eventual winner, Beijing — the IOC will have few alternatives other than to drop many of its costly demands and turn Olympics from displays of political vanity back into sporting events.
Holding the games at permanent locations makes a lot of economic sense. Yet cities that care about their residents’ opinion should still get a chance to play host — on terms that these residents could accept. It’s the Olympic bureaucracy’s job to work out these terms.
Based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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