Rome’s Anti-establishment Mayor Drops Bid to Host Olympics “Nightmare”

Mayor Virginia Raggi, struggling to gain credibility and clean up corruption in Italy’s capital, said a bid for the 2024 games would be “irresponsible”

Newly elected mayor of Rome, Five Star Movement's candidate Virginia Raggi, gives a press conference after winning the mayoral election on June 19, 2016 at her campaign headquarters in Rome.   / AFP / TIZIANA FABI        (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly elected mayor of Rome, Five Star Movement's candidate Virginia Raggi, gives a press conference after winning the mayoral election on June 19, 2016 at her campaign headquarters in Rome. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Hosting the Olympics used to be seen as an honor and a cash cow: A chance to show off a city’s international status and profit from an influx of tourists. But these days the games seem increasingly unappealing, as protests last month against the staggering waste of Brazil’s $12 billion Rio Games attested.

So perhaps it wasn’t surprising Wednesday when Rome’s new mayor, Virginia Raggi, officially rejected the Eternal City’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, saying the games would only fuel corruption and increase debt for the struggling capital. This is the second time Rome has withdrawn from Olympic consideration in four years.

“The Olympics are a dream that becomes a nightmare,” she said. “The Olympics serve business associations, but not citizens.” She added that Rome was still paying off debts for hosting the 1960 Olympics and 1990 World Cup, and it would be “irresponsible” to take on more debt.

Raggi, elected in June on the anti-establishment platform of the populist Five-Star Movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, has been under pressure to show she can handle governing Italy’s capital, a notoriously corrupt city.

So far, it’s been a bumpy ride. The party’s keys issues are transparency and accountability, but as Rome’s deeply-rooted problems piled up over the summer, Raggi struggled to get her cabinet up and running and seemed unprepared to tackle the same issues afflicting the city for years. Five members of her administration have already resigned amid corruption allegations or transparency issues. Meanwhile, the city’s indebted sanitation services let garbage bags pile up on city streets for weeks, a familiar problem leaving Romans to wonder if anything had changed on Capitoline Hill.

Rewiring Rome’s entrenched system of back scratching is no easy task. The previous mayor, the surgeon Ignazio Marino, also came into office with a clean slate and promises to root out corruption. But he was eventually seen as ineffective and booted out last year.

Critics say the Raggi administration’s stumbles show the Five Star Movement isn’t up to the job either, and decry it as a party that is far better at complaining than governing and fostering reforms. Raggi’s refusal to bid for the Olympics, they say, could just as easily be seen as her inability to combat ingrained problems.

“You cannot just give up on organizing large events for fear of theft and waste,” wrote TV journalist Myrta Merlino. “A force created to dismantle [dirty politics] cannot give into corruption, as if it were an invincible evil.”

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, from the Democratic Party, had favored hosting the games, claiming they would bring prestige to Italy and money to Rome’s neglected suburbs. “If the city decides no, it means that in 2028 we’ll put forward another city,” Renzi told the radio station RTF on Sept.1. Meanwhile, the president of the Italian National Olympic Committee called Raggi’s talk of the 1960s debt “a populist lie.”

Still, Rome isn’t the only city to steer clear of the world’s biggest sporting event. Both Boston and Hamburg, Germany, dropped their bids citing financial concerns.

The International Olympic Committee still has a year to vet potential host cities; final selection is set for September 2017. Currently, Paris, Los Angeles and Budapest are in the running. Los Angeles is seen as the front-runner.

Raggi’s decision will be put to a vote in the city assembly, but is considered effectively dead since the International Olympic Committee requires bids to have government and city support.

Photo credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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