Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Pathological Obsession With Moving the Olympics

Having a single host site would be a simple—and entirely traditional—fix for what ails the Games.

By , a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Actress Katerina Lechou lights the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, the sanctuary where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC, on October 24, 2017 during the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Actress Katerina Lechou lights the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, the sanctuary where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC, on October 24, 2017 during the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad are well underway in Tokyo, having escaped repeated calls for cancellation but not, alas, a full year’s postponement that resulted in heavy financial losses for the Japanese organizers. The manifold ills plaguing this current iteration of the five-ring circus may remind us that the modern Olympic movement has long been the victim of costly crises beyond the control of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national organizing committees. There have been outright cancellations during the two world wars, large-scale international boycotts, and even terrorist attacks. These agonizing developments have damaged the Olympic project’s (aspirational) image as a promoter of international harmony and goodwill, as well as its viability as a commercial enterprise, which, despite pious claims to the contrary, it most certainly is.

While the circumstances behind and motivations for the cancellations, boycotts, and violent attacks have varied over the years, the Olympic movement has been rendered more vulnerable to such intrusions by one key dimension in its DNA: mobility. Unlike the ancient Olympics, which transpired every four years in one location, the modern Games, as we all know, move from city to city, nation to nation, even continent to continent. Among other problematic consequences of this setup, venue variation has encouraged municipal and national organizers over the years to engage in escalating—and economically negligent—one-upmanship in matters of representational theater and physical infrastructure.

When Olympic festivals had to be canceled, which has happened on five occasions, the financial losses suffered by organizers (and to a lesser degree the IOC) were greatly magnified by the ambitiousness of these one-off undertakings. And even when built-to-order athletic facilities found a couple weeks’ glorious use under the Olympic sun, they typically languished thereafter as white elephants, unused and unloved. At the same time, the practice of constantly adding new sites to the roster of host cities—and this without regard to the newcomers’ ideological identity or alignment—increased the likelihood of internecine acrimony and eventual boycott. This particular drawback of the mobility model became painfully evident during the Cold War, when festivals were marred not only by boycotts but also by enhanced political posturing on the fields of play.

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad are well underway in Tokyo, having escaped repeated calls for cancellation but not, alas, a full year’s postponement that resulted in heavy financial losses for the Japanese organizers. The manifold ills plaguing this current iteration of the five-ring circus may remind us that the modern Olympic movement has long been the victim of costly crises beyond the control of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national organizing committees. There have been outright cancellations during the two world wars, large-scale international boycotts, and even terrorist attacks. These agonizing developments have damaged the Olympic project’s (aspirational) image as a promoter of international harmony and goodwill, as well as its viability as a commercial enterprise, which, despite pious claims to the contrary, it most certainly is.

While the circumstances behind and motivations for the cancellations, boycotts, and violent attacks have varied over the years, the Olympic movement has been rendered more vulnerable to such intrusions by one key dimension in its DNA: mobility. Unlike the ancient Olympics, which transpired every four years in one location, the modern Games, as we all know, move from city to city, nation to nation, even continent to continent. Among other problematic consequences of this setup, venue variation has encouraged municipal and national organizers over the years to engage in escalating—and economically negligent—one-upmanship in matters of representational theater and physical infrastructure.

When Olympic festivals had to be canceled, which has happened on five occasions, the financial losses suffered by organizers (and to a lesser degree the IOC) were greatly magnified by the ambitiousness of these one-off undertakings. And even when built-to-order athletic facilities found a couple weeks’ glorious use under the Olympic sun, they typically languished thereafter as white elephants, unused and unloved. At the same time, the practice of constantly adding new sites to the roster of host cities—and this without regard to the newcomers’ ideological identity or alignment—increased the likelihood of internecine acrimony and eventual boycott. This particular drawback of the mobility model became painfully evident during the Cold War, when festivals were marred not only by boycotts but also by enhanced political posturing on the fields of play.

The heightened risks and dangers associated with the Olympics’ peripatetic policy begs the question: Why not stage the Games, like those of the classical era, in a single permanent locale? It’s an idea that’s been entertained before on multiple occasions—and, in a forgotten bit of modern Olympics history, it almost happened. At a moment when the Games’ perpetual mobility model is again under scrutiny, it’s instructive to revisit efforts at changing this basic principle, starting with that promising initial campaign.

When the newly created IOC decided to launch its adventurous modern Olympic Games project in Athens in 1896, many Greeks, including Athenians, were more troubled than excited. Anticipating objections raised in some later Olympic host venues, they argued that any public funds spent on this rich man’s folly could be better spent elsewhere and that building the necessary new competition facilities would disrupt daily life in the city.

Yet once the 1896 inaugural festival actually got underway, many locals, again anticipating behavior down the road by Olympic-venue early doubters, found themselves pulled willy-nilly into the powerful drama of competition, even though their own men (there were no women) were rarely proving victorious. When, near the end of play, a citizen of Greece named Spiridon Loues actually won the marathon, which had been conceived specifically for this festival and constituted its most widely watched event, Greek spectators went wild, waving little national flags and demanding that a local band play the Greek national anthem over and over.

Although for the Greek hosts Loues’s heroic victory was an outlier, and though these inaugural Athens Games attracted only a few foreign guests, the Greek organizers were pleased enough by what had transpired to propose, indeed demand, that Greece keep the Games going forward. King George of Greece, who had officially opened the Games, threw his support behind this idea, officially stating his hope that the IOC and its influential president, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, would promote Athens as “the stable and permanent seat of the Olympic Games.” This aspiration was seconded by some of the foreigners present at the Athens Games, including the American consul, who argued that “Olympic Games would hardly seem worthy of the name if held in any other country [but Greece].” Even some charter IOC members, most of them avid Hellenists, shared this view.

De Coubertin, however, emphatically did not. From the very outset of his campaign to revive ancient Olympia’s tradition of quadrennial athletic competitions, he envisaged his festivals to be ambulatory rather than stationary. As he put the matter: “The sole means of assuring the [modern] Games’ success and of rendering them as splendid and brilliant as possible consists in giving them a great variety of aspect.”

In the immediate aftermath of the first Modern Games, as the Greeks continued to push their case for Athens as permanent host, and this at a time when de Coubertin’s rival peripatetic model was not yet secure, the IOC president went out of his way to distance his Olympics project from its early Greek ties. In comments following the closing of the 1896 Games, de Coubertin suggested that the Greek organizers had made “many mistakes” in Athens, and at a conference in Le Havre, France, a year later he once again stressed venue mobility as crucial to the Games’ survival. When, in 1906, the Greeks attempted to buttress their claim to the modern Games by hosting a second “Olympic” festival in Athens, the IOC, at de Coubertin’s insistence, refused to recognize the medals distributed on that occasion.

With the fledgling Olympic movement continuing to shift venues in its early years—Paris, St. Louis, London, Stockholm—de Coubertin’s ambulatory model gradually attained de rigueur status despite many embarrassing mishaps, especially at Paris and St. Louis.

Perhaps surprisingly, the peripatetic principle continued to hold sway, with only episodic second-guessing when World War I forced cancellation of the Olympics scheduled for Berlin (of all places) in 1916. By then the IOC had shifted its headquarters from Paris to Lausanne in neutral Switzerland, and some IOC members spoke briefly of finding a neutral refuge for the Games there as well. Yet such transitory talk counted for little; the traveling Olympic circus as constituted by de Coubertin duly resumed its perambulations in 1920 in war-battered Antwerp, Belgium.

The next challenge to the Games’ ambulatory model also proved short-lived, and thankfully so, for it came from Nazi Germany. Although Nazi leaders initially opposed the idea of any Olympic festival on German soil—Adolf Hitler himself had branded the Olympics “a conspiracy of Freemasons and Jews”—his government ultimately came to embrace “German Games” in 1936 (held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the winter, Berlin in the summer) as grand opportunities for economic and propagandistic gain. Among Hitler and his cohorts, the success of the Berlin Games (Jesse Owens’s historic victories notwithstanding) engendered a desire to commandeer the entire Olympic movement for Germany. Upon de Coubertin’s death in 1937, Hitler insisted on securing the rights to the founder’s literary estate, which promptly moved to a new Olympic Institute in Berlin run by Carl Diem, chief organizer of the Berlin Games. Once World War II broke out two years later and German armies proved devastatingly triumphal in the conflict’s early going, Hitler and SS chief Heinrich Himmler began dreaming of a postwar Olympic movement thoroughly dominated by victorious Germany, its quadrennial festivals transpiring exclusively in Berlin or Nuremberg. From the German perspective, future Games should be open only to racially acceptable competitors so as to ensure there would be no more Jesse Owens-style embarrassments.

Nazi plans to replace the internationalist Olympic traveling circus format with a Reich-based permanent-venue approach constituted, it is safe to say, a supposed cure for Olympic ailments that would have been much worse than the disease. The brief life span and merciful death of this terrible Nazi plan did not, however, obviate the undeniable fact that a permanent-home model as an alternative to perpetual mobility remained in the air some half-century after the modern Games’ birth.

In the air, yes, but only barely noticeable given the way Olympic winds were blowing in the second half of the 20th century, when the Games extended their hosting footprint to Australia, Asia, and Latin America. The Olympic flag’s five rings, symbolizing continents, now gained added credibility. At the same time, however, by going fully global, the Olympic movement rendered itself more vulnerable to that era’s passionate sociopolitical confrontations, whether connected to Cold War rivalries, racial equity and decolonization, or the escalating standoff between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. One consequence of such enhanced exposure was large-scale boycotts: Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980, and Los Angeles 1984 come immediately to mind. Another consequence was terrorism: Munich 1972’s heiteren Spiele (“joyful Games”) became ground zero for the worst disaster ever to strike the modern Games.

As the modern Olympic movement entered its second century of life, neither the Munich massacre nor repeated boycotts prevented retention, without any official second-guessing, of the IOC’s entrenched mobility model. However, the first Summer Olympic venue of the new 21st century happened to be Athens (2004), and with that epochal event came a reawakening of the Athenian-home gambit pushed so assiduously by the Greeks a century earlier. Alas, Greek noises along these lines in 2004 subsided to whispers when this second Athens Olympiad fell prey to embarrassing organizational ineptitude, financial irregularities, and very low foreign attendance due largely to unfortunate timing—9/11 had occurred less than three years prior.

As a sign of just how problematic ongoing Olympic mobility could be, however, within 12 years the permanent-home alternative was back yet again, with Athens again the preferred refuge and Greeks themselves leading the charge. The specific backdrop here was the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, a moment marked by much handwringing over this venue’s high crime rates, brutal police, poisoned environment, and a nasty virus called Zika hovering menacingly over the entire operation. Deploying Rio as a foil, a panel of Greek luminaries appealed formally to the IOC to jettison its wandering ways and to settle permanently in Athens. As in the past, the Greeks found some foreign backing for their quixotic quest but no support whatsoever in the IOC.

Why was this the case? Put simply, there is more money in the ambulatory approach to Olympic hosting. Having a variety of host cities, each with its own broadcast market, drives up the overall value of television rights, and it is from the sale of these rights that the IOC now derives over 70 percent of its income. “Follow the money!” has long been the operative credo of high-level sports, and the IOC does not fail to follow this dictum. Don’t, therefore, expect to see the traveling Olympic circus settle down anytime soon.

David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.

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