ATLANTA – It might seem puzzling that Asia is getting three Olympics in a row. South Korea has the 2018 Winter Games, Japan has the 2020 Summer Games and China has the 2022 Winter Games. Shouldn’t the International Olympic Committee spread the wealth a bit more?
It’s not that simple, because Olympic host city selection is a complicated interplay between the political and economic environments of the world when the host city selection process is playing out. This run of Olympics is happening in Asia largely because of the financial crisis in 2008.
The bidding for the 2018 Games began in summer 2009. Back then, you may recall, the world was just beginning to shake off an economic crisis. While stock markets were recovering, the unemployment rate in the U.S. continued to climb and was approaching 10 percent, and a sovereign debt crisis was still destabilizing Europe. This was not the best environment for politicians in democratically governed countries to submit bids to host an expensive global spectacle.
Three cities bid to host the 2018 Games: Pyeongchang in South Korea, Munich in Germany and Annecy in France. This was fewer than the seven cities that applied to host the 2014 Games. Both of the European bids came from Europe’s core rather than the peripheral countries that had so many problems with their sovereign debt in 2010 and 2011, as the bid process was ongoing. Ultimately, Pyeongchang was chosen to host.
Just as the 2018 selection process occurred in the aftershocks of an economic crisis, the 2020 process began during the era of austerity that followed. While New York lodged a bid for the 2012 Summer Games and U.S. President Barack Obama tried to help Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Games, the United States chose not to bid for the 2020 Games. Rome initially intended to bid for the 2020 games but, perhaps because of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis, pulled its bid at the last minute amid a lack of support from the government. The final shortlist was Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul. Perhaps because of ongoing economic problems in Spain, and political instability in Turkey, Tokyo represented the safest bet.
Then there’s 2022: The Olympics that nobody wanted. The bid process began in 2013 at a time when economies had stabilized, but it still didn’t feel like a robust expansion in many countries. Governments had yet to emerge from a cycle of austerity. By late 2014, only two bids remained to host the 2022 Games — Almaty, Kazakhstan , and Beijing, China. When your choices are China or a country with an economy smaller than Iraq’s or Algeria’s, you pick China.
The good news is that the economic and political environments have recovered enough to get Western countries interested in hosting the Olympics again. If the site selection process before the financial crisis was fraught with corruption and sticking unprepared cities with expensive boondoggles — think the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio — then perhaps this new era represents a more prudent, thoughtful environment of putting Olympics in countries with stable political climates that are wealthy enough to handle the responsibility. Paris, chosen to host the 2024 Summer Games, and Los Angeles, host of the 2028 Summer Games, are both global cities that have hosted the Olympics before. While it’s still early in the bidding process for the 2026 Winter Games, expect rationality to prevail there as well.
The evolution of the Olympics site selection process over the past generation provides a glimmer of hope for those seeking better governance beyond the hosting of global sports events. For too long, being chosen to host the Olympics left cities with a legacy of debt and vacant, decaying venue sites. It’s no wonder cities have become reluctant to take on the burden of hosting. Perhaps it took continued crises and blatant corruption to change that culture. If a reformed, chastened International Olympics Committee can pull off successive Olympic Games without repeating the boondoggles, it’ll go a long way toward restoring trust. And if it works for the Olympics, maybe there’s hope for other public works and social programs too.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and formerly was a risk officer for Partner Fund Management, a San Francisco-based hedge fund. He has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.