What if the Olympics were more like the World Cup?

By Bradley Tusk  |  August 18, 2016

Take a look at the last few Olympics — summer and winter both. Good experiences for the host cities? Perhaps. Good financial investments for their taxpayers? Absolutely not. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is already struggling to convince cities to bid for the Winter Games. The same struggles may not be far behind for the Summer Games (not counting bids from totalitarian regimes looking to legitimize themselves, but if that’s the only way to host the Games, we shouldn’t even have them). Fortunately, there is a way to bring down the cost of hosting the Olympics and ensure the Games survive.

Why did cities want to host the Olympics?

Originally, the prestige of hosting the Olympics was seen as meaningful enough to merit the cost of hosting it. But when everyone can now connect to everyone else in the blink of an eye, the exposure is no longer all that valuable. And as the value of the Olympic brand continues to decline with constant corruption and doping scandals, the prestige factor becomes less and less meaningful.

The next argument for hosting was the Trojan Horse theory — the Olympics provide the political will to make infrastructure investments cities need but otherwise wouldn’t make. It’s hard to look at the expanse of mainly unused athletic facilities in London or Sochi and give this theory much credence (and this recent New York Times story shows that even less useful infrastructure investment occurred in Rio). And when New York City lost its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, Mayor Mike Bloomberg just went ahead and built the infrastructure the city needed anyway, so the Trojan Horse theory isn’t particularly salient these days either.

A better way

What if hosting bids were based on countries, rather than specific cities? Like the World Cup, events could be clustered in a handful of cities across the host country, relying as much as possible on existing facilities and infrastructure rather than requiring cities to build stadiums, velodromes, and aquatic centers that will never be used enough to justify the cost.

One city could still serve as the central hub (ideally the nation’s capital), and host the opening and closing ceremonies. The host country could use existing hotels in each market for the athletes rather than pay to build Olympic Villages. Existing airports, train stations, and roads can be used to service athletic facilities rather than requiring taxpayers to fund new ones. In other words, if we used everything already built across an entire nation, rather than requiring all of it to suddenly exist in one city, the Games could be produced at a fraction of the cost.

The U.S. as an example

Imagine the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and track & field being held right outside our nation’s capital at FedEx Stadium (or, if we don’t want to reward the home stadium of a football team with such an offensive name, pick the Los Angeles Coliseum for its Olympic heritage). Imagine tennis at the U.S. Open in Queens, swimming at the IU Natatorium in Indianapolis, basketball at Madison Square Garden, boxing in Las Vegas, beach volleyball in Malibu, gymnastics at the Karolyi Camp in Texas, soccer at Soldier Field, golf at Augusta. Imagine sailing in the San Francisco Bay, wrestling in the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Chicago, and fencing at the renown Academy of Fencing in Virginia. Imagine the most famous Olympic athletes competing and setting world records in the stadiums, arenas, and fields that you have spent many years going to watching your favorite local teams. And imagine not having to pay to build any of these facilities — because they already exist.

The IOC won’t like it

The current system works well for the frequently criticized, European dominated IOC. They decide who gets the games, they further their political agenda by rewarding countries they like, and if FIFA is any guide, their leadership may be getting rich off the process. But still, they love tradition and hate change, so they’ll say this is a terrible idea. Here’s what they’ll claim and why they’re wrong. Diffuse games will mean diffuse enthusiasm. They’ll say that you need the momentum of everyone being in one place to make the Games work. But fans and athletes seem to enjoy attending, watching and participating in the World Cup just as much as the Olympics (if not more so), despite having to travel and compete across the nation, so it’s hard to give that argument much credence.

The athletes will hate it because they need the communal living facility of the Olympic Village. Sure, athletes value the experience of the Olympic Village. It seems like a blast. But I bet they value having an Olympics to compete in even more.

The media will hate it because there’s too much ground to cover. The media seems to have no trouble covering the World Cup. Or soccer matches taking place across Europe in general. Or football, baseball or basketball across the U.S. Or hockey across Canada. In other words, they can handle it.

The sponsors won’t like it. The sponsors care about eyeballs on tv, not at the sites. As long as the games are televised, they won’t care.

It’s not as good an experience for the fans. That’s probably true for the select few who can afford to attend the games right now (like the IOC and their cronies). But spreading the games out across an entire nation also means a lot more people can afford to attend, because the travel costs will be a lot lower. In other words, this approach is worse for wealthy fans but better for everyone else.

If the IOC can continue to convince cities to risk and lose tens of billions of dollars every four years, more power to them. But as cities become more worried about addressing income inequality than building equestrian facilities, maintaining the status quo may not be feasible. And rather than turning the Games over to a handful of countries whose images are so bad, they’ll spend anything to try to change it, making one modest change to the way the Games are hosted could be the solution — and their savior.