Give Greece Back the Olympics

Holding the games in a different country every four years invites chaos, corruption, and redundant infrastructure.

The great Australian journalist Murray Sayle famously said there were only two newspaper stories: “we name the guilty man” and “arrow points to defective part.” He missed a third: “Olympic host country unprepared for games to start.”

This year the unreadiness theme is public health. “Covid risks at the Tokyo Olympics aren’t being managed, experts say” Scientific American reported on July 13. Five days later, CNN reported the sequel: “Two South Africans test positive for Covid in Olympic village.” Then finally, on July 19: “A Coronavirus Cluster Overshadows the Run-up to the Games as a U.S. Gymnast Tests Positive.” No fewer than two dozen “athletes, coaches, referees and other officials” in Tokyo for the games have tested positive for Covid. Toyota, one of the principal corporate sponsors, has announced it won’t run any Olympic-themed advertisements during the games, presumably because any association with the foolish decision to damn the pandemic and go ahead with this year’s games threatens to become a serious public-relations liability.

Japan is a uniquely poor location to host the Olympics because only about 20 percent of its population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. New cases are spreading so quickly that a state of emergency was declared for the duration of the games. Yes, you read that right—Japan declared its own Olympics to be a public-health emergency. Spectators will be barred from attending Olympic events in and around Tokyo. The games might as well take place on a sound stage in Burbank.

Let’s remember, though, that host countries are never ready to host the Olympics. Sometimes it’s because stadiums aren’t yet built. That was the news in “Host Brazil is unprepared for the 2016 Olympics.” Sometimes there’s an unavailability of hotel rooms. Hence, in 2014, “Sochi: Worst Olympics Travel Destination Ever?” Or maybe all other activities in the host city risk coming to a halt. Hence, in 2012, “Third of UK businesses unprepared for Olympics.”

It’s true that the Olympics always manage somehow to come off despite poor preparation. But that’s mostly because, after opening ceremonies, coverage of the athletic events—punctuated by mawkish feature stories about this star Albanian pentathlete who reads to his blind grandma, or that East Timor pole vaulter who bravely overcame an addiction to paint thinner—displace news stories about, say, the great mass of city-dwellers who can’t get to work that day because the traffic is so bad. It literally takes a bomb going off to draw the public’s attention away from Olympic events once they’ve begun.

Afterwards, though, like clockwork, come the stories about exactly how far revenues fell short of expenses, and, still later, about weeds poking through concrete in the now-abandoned Olympic village. (ABC News has a whole slide show of these white elephants.) Host countries end up wondering whether the whole thing was really worth the hefty bribes they paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

A growing number of people say the international community should just pull the plug on the Olympic games. The Olympics, concludes David Goldblatt, author of a 2016 book about them, are “unreformable.” Here at the Washington Monthly, our editor-in-chief Paul Glastris has instead argued (hereherehere, and here) for the less drastic measure of repatriating them to Greece, whence they came, and where they remained more than a thousand years until the fourth or fifth century AD.

Glastris is Greek-American, with the outsized affection for the mother country common among even the most assimilated within that group (see Greek Americans: Struggle and Success, by Peter and Charles Moskos). I am not Greek-American, nor have I even visited the place. That absolves me of any sentimentality when I say that Glastris is right. The Olympics belong back in Greece.

You wouldn’t hold the Salzburg Music Festival in Akron, or the Rose Bowl in Burkina Faso. Why would you host the Olympics anywhere but where they began? To do otherwise smacks of cultural appropriation, as the kids say. (Set aside that three quarters of western civilization is already appropriated from Ancient Greece.) The Olympics are a Greek invention that express Greek ideals about the grace and beauty in physical prowess. These ideals are respected the world round, which is why nations from across the globe participate. They’d be no less inclined to participate if the Olympics stayed put in Greece.

The main argument, though, for returning the Olympics to Greece isn’t cultural, but practical. It’s financially wasteful to move this travelling show from country to country. The Olympics are nearly always poorly run, if only because hosting them entails acquiring particular skills concerning something the host city has never done before, or anyway not in recent memory. The competition to be chosen host country is an open invitation to financial corruption. And constructing the facilities in which to stage them is a near-tragic exercise in redundancy. How many former Olympic villages does the world need?

Obviously the Greeks would have to be consulted on the matter. Modern Greece is not a wealthy nation. It shouldn’t have to shoulder alone the cost of building the infrastructure (or updating the infrastructure that Athens built to host the Olympics in 2004). Perhaps the IOC could be persuaded to share some broadcast revenue; that would give the Greeks a strong incentive to run the thing right.

All participating nations should contribute, with perhaps the European Union contributing a bit more.

Christine Lagarde is on record supporting the idea of bringing the Olympics home to Greece. Maybe the European Central Bank could get the ball rolling. The Germans might grumble a bit—they’re still feeling grumpy about being asked to bail out Greece in the Eurozone crisis—but hosting the Olympics might give Greece some of the stable revenue flow it needs to avoid the next financial meltdown.

The first couple of times Greece hosts the Olympics will be rocky. Expect Sports Illustrated to be merciless. But by the third go-round the Greeks will likely get the hang of it. Practice makes perfect. Then the rest of us can end our quadrennial ritual of clucking about how unready this or that country was for the crush of people arriving on its shores. Instead, we can down a shot of ouzo, nibble on some spanakopita, and enjoy the games.

This story has been updated with even more bad news about the Covid situation in Japan.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.