Poor Rio de Janeiro.
Remember seven years ago when the Brazilian city won the right to host this year’s Summer Olympics? The country was considered a global comer ready to showcase itself, with newly discovered offshore oil fields and a humming economy.
Now? It’s hard to imagine things could have gone worse.
The price of oil has plunged, the economy is in crisis, and the president has been impeached on votes from many legislators themselves under investigation.
The drumbeat of depressing news exceeds the usual Olympian cost overruns and building delays:
n Brazilian prosecutors are investigating several Olympic projects amid charges of kickbacks to politicians and price fixing.
n Two joggers plunged to their deaths in April when an Olympic-related bike lane collapsed.
n A new highway already has potholes and large cracks.
n An Australian athlete was robbed at gunpoint in June, one month after three in Spain’s sailing team were robbed at gunpoint.
n Numerous athletes have pulled out because of concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
n Waterways for sailing, rowing, triathlon and marathon swimming are polluted with raw sewage.
n Street crime is rampant; Brazil promises a security force of 100,000 for the games, 2.5 times the number in London in 2012.
Then there’s the shadow of the Olympics’ original sin — doping. A Rio lab that was to do all the games’ drug testing was suspended by the world anti-doping agency. Russia’s track team has been banned because of that country’s extensive state-run doping program.
By some estimates, Brazil is paying about $11 billion to host the games, probably an understatement and surely reduced by the $15 billion it spent to host soccer’s World Cup two years ago.
So, is it worth it? It’s a question worth asking, especially when there is no evidence the games — like the World Cup — will do anything to change conditions for the many very poor people in Rio. And while an Olympics or World Cup can spark infrastructure improvements, ask the Brazilians about the promised bullet train between Rio and Sao Paulo.
The Olympics has been bloated for years. London, considered a model, spent a “modest” $13.4 billion that included the smart use of temporary facilities. But Russia spent $51 billion on Sochi’s Winter Games in 2014, and Athens is saddled with vacant and rusting white elephant facilities it built for 2004.
Just bidding to host an Olympics costs more than $70 million, and that doesn’t include the bribes. U.S. cities interested in hosting in 2024 were told basic requirements include 45,000 hotel rooms, an international airport, an Olympic village for 16,500 with a 5,000-person dining hall, and a workforce of up to 200,000. Add in Rio’s ongoing troubles, and it’s no wonder residents in Boston and Hamburg, Germany, nixed bids for 2024.
Perhaps the time has come for a permanent Olympic venue. No more edifices that lie barren when the games are gone. No more spending of billions that could address critical needs just to advertise yourself — for two weeks.
Pick a place everyone likes — Canada, Australia, a Scandinavian country — and have all nations contribute according to their means to build and maintain the Olympic infrastructure. Cities or countries could vie to “host” opening and closing ceremonies that would highlight their cultures, and pay for food and security costs, a tidy sum but much more affordable without the capital costs. And to address one obvious drawback, some of the savings could be used for travel vouchers to help residents attend their “home” games, now in a different land.
Not feasible? The ancient Olympics lasted more than 1,100 years, and were held in the same place in Greece.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.