Every big news story develops a narrative, an agreed-upon dramatic arc that daily journalists attempt to advance. In the lead-up to this summer’s games, the consensus story line has been: Will Athens be ready? This theme took shape because Greece was, indeed, appallingly slow to initiate the hundreds of infrastructure projects that will be necessary to host the games–from building the massive Olympic aquatic center to widening the ancient marathon route between Marathon and Athens. Greece had also been dogged by “November 17,” a dangerous home-grown terrorist organization, which the country’s security forces busted only in 2002.

But in recent months, the Greeks have done a reasonable job of catching up. Greece is now spending at least three times what Australia paid for security during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and has involved NATO forces in the effort. And the vast majority of building projects are now virtually complete–sans, perhaps, certain nice-but-not-strictly-necessary adornments, like monuments outside the stadiums and sod in the median strips. As one of the Olympic general secretaries, Costas Cartalis, told BusinessWeek, “The issue is not construction anymore. The issue is putting together all the different bits and bytes.” Indeed, while many foreign journalists have wandered about Athens with stopwatches observing the concrete drying, few have focused on the one factor most likely to cause snafus during this summer’s Olympics: inexperience. In these games, as in all previous modern Olympics, the vast majority of the staff who work the events–the bus drivers, the food vendors, the traffic cops, the military officers manning the security command centers–have never done this before. It is this lack of previous experience that has caused or contributed to the most famous problems that have befallen modern Olympic games, from lost bus drivers in Sydney to the failure to prevent a terrorist bombing in Atlanta.

The heart of the problem is that the Olympics–for no unassailable reason–alters its location every four years. With every change of venue, millions of staff-hours of know-how are lost. That’s not how most other major sporting events are organized. Professional golf tournaments return to the same courses year after year, allowing the staffs there to learn from their mistakes. Same with tennis: The groundskeepers at Wimbledon have had decades to practice pulling out the rain tarps and emptying out the parking lots. Yet the Olympics tries to reinvent the wheel every time, fielding a new team of planners, contractors, accountants, technicians, security personnel, and volunteers every four years, and expecting them to execute myriad complex logistical tasks perfectly the first time out. As Atlanta’s Olympic finance chief Pat Glisson explained to CFO magazine, her job was to “create a Fortune 500 company from scratch, then take it apart at the end.”

The ancient Greeks who invented the Olympics would have shaken their heads at the traveling-circus style of the modern games. After all, they didn’t hold the Olympics one year in Sparta, the next in Corinth, then in Delphi. For over a thousand years, the games took place in the same wooded sanctuary of Olympia, on the Peloponnesian peninsula. This set-up seemed to work fine. The extant classical texts contain no complaints of faulty Olympic crowd control, misplaced victory wreaths, or insufficient supplies of lamb kabobs. The Roman Emperor Theodosius put an end to the games in the 4th century A.D. not because he’d tired of traffic congestion or ill-behaving drunken helots, but because, as a Christian, he couldn’t abide the thought of celebrated athletes parading in the buff and offering sacrifices to pagan gods.

The man who resurrected the Olympics 1,500 years later tweaked the ancient formula to include the idea that the games should migrate. Pierre de Coubertin, a 19th-century French aristocrat and pedagogue, set out to revive the competitions in 1894 with the high-minded political aim of fostering international goodwill, declaring “the Olympics are for the world.” He organized the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, where primarily well-off college students and athletic club members from 14 nations competed in 10 sports. Although the Greeks afterwards made a play to keep the games at home permanently, de Coubertin made sure that the 1900 Olympics were held in his country, in Paris. Thus the tradition of moving the Olympics was born.

As the years went by, the Olympics grew larger and more unwieldy–with new events, additional countries, more athletes, and bigger crowds. At the same time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which oversees the competitions, came to view the quadrennial choosing of the next games site as a kind of entitlement, a chance to bestow recognition on a city or country deemed worthy. Sometimes the effect was ennobling: The 1920 Olympics went to Antwerp, largely out of respect for Belgium’s losses during World War I. At other times, the results were less laudable. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin, for instance, gave Hitler ill-timed international recognition. Yet the tradition continued. The 1948 Olympics were held in London to honor the survival of a city badly battered by the blitz. The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne provided a celebratory spotlight for the Southern Hemisphere. The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo did the same for Asia.

Still, the urge to be geographically inclusive sometimes backfired. Months before the 1980 games in Moscow, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Unable to change the host city, Jimmy Carter leaned on U.S. athletes to withdraw from competition. Moscow retaliated by pressuring Warsaw Pact athletes to boycott the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

The 1984 Olympics were notable for another reason: Under the guidance of Peter Ueberroth and with substantial corporate sponsorship, they were the first to turn a profit for the host city. Suddenly, the prospect of hosting the Olympics seemed not only an honor, but also an economic growth strategy–feeding the idea that it is right and fair to move the games around. Over the past three decades, a sub-industry of consultants and economic forecasters has worked with local chambers of commerce to perfect Olympic bids, urging municipalities to propose larger stadiums, and more lavish monuments, more extensive media facilities in order to beat the competition.

Alas, few cities have managed to repeat L.A.’s success: According to a 2002 audit, the government of New South Wales (the Australian state where Sydney is located) spent $2 billion Australian ($1.5 billion U.S.) to subsidize the 2000 Olympics, and has since taken in only a third that sum in tax revenue attributed to the games. In Sydney and elsewhere, some projects prompted by the Olympics–for example, improvements to roads and public transportation–may prove wise investments over the long haul. On the other hand, Olympic cities around the globe are now dotted with giant concrete stadiums and velodromes that sometimes strain for post-Olympic purpose.

When new monorails and state-of-the-art aquatic facilities aren’t enough, cities have tried another means of winning bids: bribery. Before winning the 1996 games, Atlanta officials illegally offered free hospital services and college scholarships to IOC families. Salt Lake City officials were indicted by the Justice Department for spending over $1 million on sundry gifts to influence committee members. Sydney’s Olympic bid president confessed to pledging a total of $70,000 in support of sporting programs in the countries of IOC members from Kenya and Uganda–and Sydney won the 2000 games by those two votes.

Aside from corruption and waste, the imperative of moving the Olympics every four years also leads to many of the headaches and delays that have befallen recent games. In my hometown of Atlanta, planners who understood Southern hospitality but had never hosted Olympics underestimated the strain on public transportation. Police officers had to stand at subway stations holding back the crowds because the trains were already full to capacity. Similar problems with packed transit plagued athletes in Atlanta’s Olympic Village, not to mention the confusion of athletes and coaches themselves, few of whom had ever been to Atlanta or knew how to navigate our sprawling metropolis. That year, a defending heavyweight judo champion lost his crown after being barred from competition because he had gotten lost and consequently missed a mandatory weigh-in session.

During the first days of Atlanta’s Olympics, the new computer system designed to post competition scores to reporters and broadcasters suffered a meltdown, in some cases feeding news agencies nonsensical information–for example, specifying the height of one boxer at under two feet and another at 21 feet–and in other cases giving none at all. A spokesman for IBM, which had built the flawed information system, pleaded first-time jitters, telling The New York Times, “These are start-up problems.” BellSouth promised Atlanta organizers that its cellular phone system was ready for the Olympics, but on the day of opening ceremonies, its circuits were overwhelmed, and some spectators couldn’t make or receive calls.

Moving the location of the games each cycle means that nearly all of the personnel, from accountants to bus drivers to security guards, are novices at hosting an Olympics. In Atlanta, a technician who flipped a wrong switch created a 12-minute blackout in the Georgia Dome just as basketball’s American “Dream Team” was about to take the stage. More significantly, although a special Olympic “bomb management center” had been established within the police department, when a 911 call informed police of a pipe bomb in the city’s Centennial Park, the center failed to alert officers in the park before the blast went off 30 minutes later. That explosion killed one person and injured 111 others. Atlanta Olympic chief Billy Payne promised CNN that organizers would learn from the experience, “Now that this incident has occurred, the security officials obviously will be recommending measures to take in light of a known situation.” But those officials only got to learn from their mistake for the remaining days of Atlanta’s games; they likely won’t oversee another Olympics themselves.

Planners of subsequent games wisely tried to “learn from Atlanta’s mistakes,” as Salt Lake City’s organizer John Sittner put it. Those lessons, however, didn’t necessarily filter down to the inexperienced frontline workers. In 2000, Sydney’s transportation planning was better than Atlanta’s. But some Australian bus drivers still became puzzled by unfamiliar routes, got lost, and caused athletes to miss practice sessions, and at one point leaving then-IOC president Juan Antonia Samaranch waiting 40 minutes for his bus. In 2002, despite pleas from Salt Lake City’s Olympic committee, the local police department said it couldn’t allocate officers to crack down on street scalpers. When an open-air market of hundreds of scalpers developed around the city’s legal ticket exchange center, heckling passersby and blocking customers from entering the building, one of the city’s Olympic organizers took it upon himself to climb up on a planter and shout at the crowd in an attempt to enforce order. The scalpers didn’t pay him much heed though, until the police department relented and added more security personnel.

When I was in Greece in March, I watched the torch-lighting ceremony in the ancient stadium at Olympia–and had a glimpse of what might happen this summer when first-time Olympic employees encounter the unexpected. The site, an open-air amphitheater with a dirt floor and seating on the grass, has been there for millennia. In the adjacent temple of Hera, a woman dressed as a high priestess carried the flame into the stadium to light the torch of the first relay runner.

After the priestess had danced and the runner had departed, the crowd jostled toward the two exits leading from the stadium to the road above. The right exit filled up quickly. I headed toward the left exit, which consisted of a wooden staircase just wide enough for a single person to ascend at a time. One slightly plump, red-faced police officer stood on the platform at the top of the staircase, shouting and gesturing in a vain attempt at crowd control. Seven other policemen lingered near the base of the stairwell, bewildered at what to do as the throng of boisterous Greeks pressed toward the staircase, with no sense of order, priority, or direction. Women held up their babies above their heads, hoping that seeing small children would motivate some to step aside, though there was no room to do so. Men shouted at the women trying to maneuver to the front and heckled the officer on the stairwell, who more often than not couldn’t resist heckling back, his cheeks shaking, his face ruddy, and dripping with sweat. Everyone was tightly jammed together–a pickpocket’s dream and a claustrophobic’s nightmare. All told, it took an hour to struggle 25 feet forward.

You’d have to be a little hard-hearted not to like the idea that hosting the Olympics can afford smaller cities a time in the international spotlight. After the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, many Europeans and Americans who once thought of South Korea’s capital as the site of an unfortunate war now see an exciting modern city. The games can help cities in other ways. In Athens, the Olympics helped local officials muster the political will to finish important infrastructure upgrades: building a new network of highways and an airport, completing the main lines of a metro that has languished since the 1970s, creating a pedestrian zone around the Acropolis. “Such projects would probably have happened even without the Olympics,” Athens mayor Dora Bakoyannis surmises, “but it would have taken much, much more time. Decades would have been lost.”

Alas, given the rapidly accelerating costs of putting on the games–in particular the post-September 11 security expenses–the possibility of smaller countries playing host is quickly diminishing. When Athens won its bid seven years ago, Greece wasn’t expecting to have to foot nearly $2 billion for security, more than three times Sydney’s bill in 2000.

In June, IOC President Jacques Rogge told London’s Guardian that he would favor cities that “already have a maximum of infrastructure in place” when selecting future hosts. Look no further than the recent history of summer games bids. In July 2001, the finalist cities for 2008 were Beijing, Osaka, Istanbul, Toronto, and Paris. Today, the hopefuls for 2012 are New York, London, Madrid, Moscow, and Paris. As one Greek foreign ministry official confided, “I think we will be the last small country for a long time to host the Olympics.”

We may be looking at a future in which the games bounce between a dozen large countries–each inventing more creative ways to bribe the IOC, but none capturing the experience to perfect the art of hosting. One can only pray that the Olympics this summer in Athens don’t go horribly awry. But if the city manages to carry it off with only an average number of snafus, there’s an argument to be made that we keep the Olympics there forever–and give the Greeks a chance to perfect their invention.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!