Last Saturday afternoon, while everyone else was probably doing something social or productive, I was locked in my single watching a YouTube stream of the International Olympic Committee’s announcement of the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games. The 125th IOC Session last weekend in Buenos Aires was one of the most important in years — a 2020 host city was selected, members voted on adding a sport to the Olympic program, and a new IOC president was elected after the end of Jacques Rogge’s 12-year term. Yet the results of this climax of activity were anticlimactic at best – frankly, the IOC played it safe in charting its direction for the future. And given recent events in international sport and politics, perhaps this was the best decision.
The biggest news was the choice of Tokyo to host the 2020 Games over the other finalists, Madrid and Istanbul. I’m sure you already have July 24-August 9, 2020 cleared on your calendars. Don’t get me wrong — Tokyo, which also hosted the Olympics in 1964, will put on a fantastic international event and deserves to host the Games. The city’s plan is sustainable and revolves around updating the 1964 venues for modern-day use. Japan will have the chance to demonstrate its strength and resilience recovering from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
But as I watched the Japanese delegation burst into tears upon the announcement, I couldn’t help but feel like we had been transported back to the 1990s. For better or worse, the recent trend in hosting international events has been to award the event to rising countries excited to share their culture and growth with the world — see Beijing 2008 (that opening ceremony!), the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (Waka Waka!), and the upcoming World Cup and Olympics in Brazil (a new continent!). Tokyo suddenly feels boring, established, plain and overly corporate. The Winter Olympics were held in Nagano back in 1998; Pyeongchang, South Korea will host the Winter Games in 2018, putting back-to-back Games in East Asia.
I feel bad saying this because there’s clearly some American exceptionalism at work here. We never complain that the U.S. hosts the Olympics too often, even though we’ve had the Games three times in the last 30 years: Los Angeles 1984, Atlanta 1996 – possibly the weirdest choice of a host city in the modern-day, and Salt Lake City 2002 – where Mitt Romney, of all people, had to be brought in to fix an Olympics that almost didn’t happen. We whined when New York City lost its 2012 bid and when Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting for 2016. Japan still has the world’s third-largest GDP — it’s really not that weird that they’ll have the Olympics twice in 22 years.
Tokyo might have been the “boring” choice of the three candidates, but it’s probably also the right choice considering the recent consequences of risky decisions. The upcoming 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia have been plagued by Russia’s disturbing anti-gay legislation and propaganda as well as allegations of corruption. During the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, ongoing protests in Brazil juxtaposed the country’s enormous spending to prepare for the World Cup and the Olympics with rising public transport fares and cost of living. FIFA head Sepp Blatter finally admitted this week that awarding oil-rich Qatar the 2022 World Cup may have been “a mistake at the time,” after it became clear that the Qatari summers and their 120 ºF days are not exactly condusive to playing soccer.
Istanbul, despite its appeal as a growing modern metropolis, faced similar protests this summer that made the city look unfit to host an event on the scale of the Olympics, and Madrid, with its youthful appeal and LGBTQ-friendly stance, still suffers from a crippled Spanish economy. Thus, given the choice, it’s no wonder that the IOC went with the guarantees offered by Tokyo after years of controversy and chaos.
But it’s hard not to notice that our choice of Olympics-ready cities is actually quite slim. Like Pixar movies, we’re starting to see sequels — Tokyo 1964 and now 2020, London 1948 and 2012. The same countries bid over and over. Even Madrid, which seemed like a somewhat original choice, has to be placed in the context of the Barcelona Summer Games just 21 years ago. Who’s looking to bid for 2024? That’s a ways out, but possible bids could come from Paris (see the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville), Toronto (see Vancouver 2010), and a likely bid from a U.S. city to be determined (see numerous examples above). The lack of diversity shows how little has changed since these countries had the Olympics for the first time — the choices really do reflect the long-standing and disproportionate hierarchy of the world economy. At the least the IOC had the right mind to fix its mistake and vote wrestling back into the Olympic program — that was a “safe” choice, but definitely the right one. Preserving a sport in which 71 different nations competed at the 2012 Games is truer to the Olympic spirit than anything else surrounding the politics of international sport.