An Olympic-Sized Mess

The revenge of Big Bad Badminton, and other debacles from London's Olympics prep. Chicago, be warned.

Today, the International Olympic Committee announced that Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympic summer games -- beating out Madrid, Tokyo, and Chicago, despite the lobbying of U.S. President (and former Chicago resident) Barack Obama. The announcement met with cheers in Brazil and shock in the United States. But Obama and other Chicagoans shouldn't fret. They need only look across the pond to realize they might have just dodged an Olympic-sized bullet.

Three years out from the 2012 summer games, the host city of London remains enthusiastic about the prospect of five thrilling weeks of international athletic competition. But it is nevertheless stuck in multibillion-dollar mud. The numerous oversight bodies and local and federal agencies are locked in turf wars. And the British government has little choice but to spend its way out, recession be damned.

For the planners of the games, indignities abound. Take, for instance, London Mayor Boris Johnson's ill-starred attempt to cut as much as $65 million from the games' cost with a single venue change. This month, he asked that rhythmic gymnastics and badminton use Wembley Arena, a massive venue in northwest London, rather than a temporary structure the organizing committee planned to build in the Olympic Park (undergoing construction in Newham, an industrial area east of the city).

Johnson's idea was quickly swatted down by Badminton England. The governing body (which  represents one of the sports Britain expects to medal in) forcefully argued that traveling to Wembley would take too much out of athletes, possibly "[damaging] their performance." The plenary discussions aren't over, but the British press reports that badminton will, at the very least, likely play at a venue in the Olympic Park. Lesson learned: Don't mess with Big Badminton.

But the problems posed by the venues are small compared with the problems posed by transporting the expected 25,000 visitors an hour to them. England is ancient. London is huge, and it is crowded nearly everywhere. Roads follow the routes of old cow paths. Highways are narrow and difficult to expand. The Tube, the city's underground subway system, is 146 years old. London's Olympic organizing committee has announced that there will be no cars allowed at the events, to make them greener. But Britain's government long ago scrapped plans to build a much-needed cross-London train line. Instead, it purchased high-speed "Javelin" trains to run on existing tracks -- meaning no new capacity -- which the masses will take from St. Pancras station in central London to the Olympic Park three miles to the east.

For now, the games are still mostly popular with the British. But the public is taking notice of the expensive drawbacks. And with months to go and billions more to spend, the Olympics have waned in popularity. A series of media debacles hasn't helped. Take, for example, London organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe's announcement of the logo for the 2012 games, a graphic representation of the number "2012" in neon colors with graffiti-inspired design.

Simply put: The public howled. Commenters said the logo most resembled a broken swastika, Stone Age art, or Lisa Simpson performing a sex act. "[This] screams 1985 at me like a dodgy set of legwarmers," one wrote. "It doesn't look professional: it does, however, look like a fucking disaster area, so it probably suits the Olympics rather well," wrote another. A Tory member of Parliament, Philip Davies, called for a do-over and noted, "It is incredible that someone has been paid ... to come up with this garbage."

One blogger asked: "How much of my money did they blow on this pink day-glo pig's abortion of a logo, I wonder?" The answer? £400,000 -- nearly $1 million -- paid to top design firm Wolff Olins, which took more than a year to produce it.

Which gets to the big problem behind the games: money. The budget for the games has quadrupled to a truly Olympic size: £9.3 billion ($15 billion), and rising. Jack Lemley, the ousted chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, forecast the games might at the end of the day cost Britain as much as the 2008 Beijing games cost China, in the region of $40 billion -- more than Britain's stimulus package, a mayday measure designed to save the country from economic ruin last November.

That was a cost China -- an expanding economy with very low labor costs and the need for infrastructure anyway -- could bear. It's less clear that Britain can. For one, London hardly needs the facilities it's building, and they are of questionable legacy value. More importantly, such exorbitant costs are coming at the same time that the British economy is struggling beneath the weight of the credit crunch and recession.

The recession is bedeviling the Olympic effort in two ways. First, a number of supplementary private funders have declared bankruptcy or dropped out, leaving Britain to bear costs alone. For instance, a $55 billion private effort to upgrade the Tube foundered when its primary contractor, Metronet Rail, filed for bankruptcy. The company had to be nationalized, costing taxpayers about $800 million and delaying work to modernize tracks and upgrade stations before the games. This spring, the organizing committee failed to find private investors to build the Olympic athletes' village, which it plans to sell as an apartment complex after the games. Now, the government has to work out the project itself, and the prospect of turning a profit after the Olympics seems dim because the housing market has collapsed.

Second, costs are spiraling out of control at the precise time the government has less capacity to bear them. In response, it has burned through existing monies at a breakneck pace, exhausting or earmarking 78 percent of its contingency fund, for instance, with 34 months to go. It has plundered hundreds of millions in lottery money. All of which means London almost certainly faces raising taxes or going into debt to cross the finish line. There's a Keynesian argument to be made that it could use the spending -- and businesses have benefited and will absolutely continue to benefit from the windfall. But the burden of the cost will fall mostly on London's taxpayers, not Britain's, and they've already faced considerable tax hikes.

The common rejoinder to spiraling costs is that the Olympics make money for host cities. But the record is somewhat spottier than boosters admit. Athens and Beijing lost billions. Montreal, which hosted the games in 1976, took 30 years to pay off its loans. Los Angeles and Seoul made a tidy profit. Atlanta and Sydney broke even. It also depends on how you count: Is building a stadium factored into the cost? How about improving the subway? Expanding the housing stock? All this can leave a city with new and gleaming infrastructure -- or a bunch of costly new houses no one wants to buy and stadiums no one wants to use.

That seems the most troubling trade-off of hosting the Olympics: Britain gets the glory of the games, but to do so will spend money it does not have on things it does not really need. So the spectacle in London should be giving Chicagoans Olympic-sized headaches.

Cathal McNaughton-Pool/Getty Images


Why Is Obama Going to Copenhagen?

By lobbying to bring the Olympic Games to Chicago, the U.S. president may only be playing to the IOC's worst tendencies.

Two weeks after Barack Obama stated that he would not be personally lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to grant his adopted city of Chicago the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, the U.S. president suddenly announced that he would make the trip to Denmark after all, in the company of the first lady and various Chicago dignitaries.

The president will spend five hours at the IOC's host-city selection meeting in Copenhagen on Oct. 2. His appearance will mark the first time an American president has ever taken on this promotional role before the assembled IOC. Given tough competition from Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tokyo -- not to mention the unfathomable (and sometimes corrupt) voting habits of the IOC membership -- Obama will have his work cut out for him.

The Republican opposition, rather than applauding this symbolic exercise in boosting American prestige, has reproached Obama for investing presidential time in what they characterize as a petty distraction from more serious business. The president, said Rep. Pete  Hoekstra, should "establish some priorities" at a time when he confronts two wars, a bitterly contested health-care debate, and some ominous provocations from the Iranian military. Conservative activist Brent Bozell portrayed Obama's decision to lobby the IOC as "evidence that this man just cannot stay away from the klieg lights." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, playing the red-white-and-blue card, countered by saying, "Surely, it's within the purview of the president to root for America" -- the sort of gesture that used to be a Republican specialty.

As if to emphasize the transformation of the Olympic Games into the world's preeminent form of show-business internationalism, the IOC's Copenhagen meeting has  evolved into an Olympic edition of "Dancing with The Stars." Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will be accompanied by the Spanish Royal Family. Brazilian President Lula da Silva will bring along the soccer immortal and global icon Pélé. Obama was originally planning to send his wife Michelle in the company of media superstar Oprah Winfrey -- the first lady of Chicago -- and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley will also be in attendance. The openly acknowledged premise underlying all of this star-mongering is that IOC members are as vulnerable to star-power as anyone else, and that celebrity "charisma" may be an indispensable ingredient of success this time around. As one of the IOC's most senior members, Dick Pound, put it: "I don't think there's an IOC member on the planet that wouldn't love to meet your president. He's a transformational figure in the world today."

Sheer celebrity may, in fact, be the currency-of-choice in this "post-reform" era of the IOC. It is well known that during the 21-year reign of its former president, Juan Antonio Samaranch (1980-2001), IOC members did much of their voting in response to envelopes of cash and other kinds of secret gratuities they received from representatives of bidding cities. The bribery scandals that resulted from the bidding process for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics dealt a terrible blow to the image of the IOC. The "reforms" that resulted from this public disgrace were supposed to put an end to the corruption that occurred on the watch of an autocratic IOC president (and former Spanish Fascist) who insisted on being addressed as "Excellency."

British investigative reporter Andrew Jennings has documented, over many years, the continuing vulnerability of the IOC membership to bribes and scams of various kinds; and the poorer the country, the more likely its IOC representative can be bought for cash or other benefits the First World has to offer. (Nor, one might add, has the purchase of Third World votes in international bodies been a monopoly of the IOC.)

Veteran observers of the IOC will therefore find it difficult to believe that IOC members were ethically transformed by the reform process that was imposed on them a decade ago. The IOC's expulsion of 10 of its most obscure members for bribe-taking was of minor significance. Most important, the great majority of today's IOC members were "elected" under the supervision of Samaranch, whose tastes often ran in the direction of the unwholesome and the ennobled. For example, the royal houses of Europe and the Middle East are conspicuously over-represented in the IOC, all of them through Samaranch's good graces. The result is an IOC in which real reformers are outnumbered by the royals, the hustlers, and the self-important nonentities.

Understanding what the IOC is and how it operates is essential for assessing the potential value, and the potential hazards, of Obama's audience before the Olympians. Over the years the IOC has listened to many fawning politicians bent on acquiring the games for their prestige value, and Obama cannot simply assume that his unique "transformational" charisma will carry the day. At the same time, there is no doubt that Obama has learned to talk the required Olympic talk. The White House statement that proclaimed the United States "is eager to bring the world together to celebrate the ideals of the Olympic movement" is exactly the sort of diplomat-ese boilerplate that allows the Olympians to play at transcendent geopolitical importance.

All of this makes Obama's Olympic mission a political gamble both at home and abroad. If he pulls it off and brings the games to Chicago, he will add a gleaming, but low-carat, gem to his crown. For there is nothing that fades more quickly from the American mind than a quadrennial Olympiad. If he fails, the right wing will pillory him as a dilettante who should have kept his eye on weightier affairs of state. Nor would a "loss" to the president of Brazil or the prime minister of Spain do much for Mr. Obama's international stature. All of this suggests that Obama should have left well enough alone and stayed at home.

But what if a politician of global stature could know in advance that his mission to the IOC would succeed? What, for example, might Vladimir Putin have known when he traveled to Guatemala City in 2007 to lobby for Russia's bid for the 2014 Winter Games? Would an authoritarian of Putin's stature have risked political embarrassment to lobby on Sochi's behalf? It is very unlikely that Putin had reached a secret understanding with IOC President Jacques Rogge, who is neither a strong executive nor an authoritarian fixer in the mold of Samaranch. At the same time, Putin the ex-KGB operative may have had good intelligence about how the vote was shaping up before his plane left Moscow -- and there's always the chance that Obama is making his plans based on similar clues.

Even so, let Obama be forewarned. The IOC's bidding competitions do not reward political virtue or any other kind of good intentions, as their award of the 2014 games to the gravedigger of Russian democracy makes abundantly clear. They reward those who promise to bring further celebrity and an aura of dignity to the IOC. The portable ice-rink Putin brought to Guatemala City was an extravagance that was calculated to set certain wheels spinning inside Olympian minds -- the promise of gaudy spectacle and, perhaps, a hint of improbable piles of cash that would somehow overflow their coffers into certain pockets. This is how the Olympic bidding game has always been played, and one wonders whether the good world citizen Obama may have gotten into this one way over his head.