Rio Olympic Village
Rio's renovated waterfront in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics. Credit: Brian Godfrey/Flickr

The conclusion of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was, for the most part, greeted with relief. Up to the day before the Opening Ceremony, there were plenty of reasons to predict a disaster: pollution, multiple security threats, crime, the Zika epidemic, a looming economic recession, and an ongoing political crisis that had led to the removal of President Dilma Rousseff. But spectators and athletes departed mostly content and without any major incident—except for one American athlete with “over-exaggerated” story-telling abilities.

But it turns out the costs, financial and otherwise, have further damaged a country that only last decade put the B in BRIC. “During the Olympics, the city was really trying hard to keep things together,” Oliver Stuenkel, a Brazilian who teaches international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian university, told the Associated Press recently. “But the minute the Olympics were over, the whole thing disintegrated.”

AP reports that creditors are calling in $40 million of debt. The iconic Maracana stadium, refurbished for the 2014 World Cup at the cost of $500 million, sits abandoned and was recently ransacked by vandals who ripped up seats and stole televisions. 3,600 brand new apartments that housed 10,000 athletes are mostly unused; the developer has since sold only 260 units in the $1 billion complex. Rio is now considering providing loans to public employees to purchase the remaining units. The upgrades to infrastructure have mostly benefited the already wealthy areas of the city, further exacerbating inequality in one of the most unequal societies in the world. A major corruption investigation is underway, tying Olympic building projects to dirty money that made its way to dozens of Brazilian politicians and businessmen. All this has added further strain to the country’s already ruinous economic recession.

This wasn’t unforeseen. The New York Times wondered if the Olympics help economies, and the answer from economist Philip Porter was pretty straightforward: “The bottom line is, every time we’ve looked — dozens of scholars, dozens of times — we find no real change in economic activity.” Abandoned Olympic villages litter the globe. “The beautiful stadiums and training facilities that Athens constructed in 2004 have mostly sat idle since [their Olympics]—though some of them now house refugees. The billions of dollars Greece borrowed to build these facilities helped tip the country into its current crushing financial crisis,” Washington Monthly’s editor in chief Paul Glastris wrote in the Washington Post before the Rio Olympics began.

The obvious solution, Glastris argued, is for the Olympics to be held in the same location (Greece) every four years:

All of this waste, risk and corruption is utterly unnecessary. The ancient Greeks held the Olympics in the same wooded sanctuary on the Peloponnese for a thousand years with no evident complaints in the extant literary record. We should do something similar for the modern Olympics: pick a city or country to be the permanent host — one each for the Summer and Winter Olympics.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, who has had to contend with Greece’s financial instability, agrees.

Standing in the way, however, is the irretrievably corrupt International Olympic Committee. Perhaps national and municipal governments around the world will finally realize that there’s no glory in playing host.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at