August 18, 2016

Global Cities and the Olympics

2016 Rio Olympics - Serena Williams of USA reacts during her match against Elina Svitolina of Ukraine. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Brandon Richardson, Research Assistant

Hosting the Olympics is a shameful endeavor. The benefits cities gain from the prestige associated with hosting the Olympics do not offset the substantial human costs reported every year the Games are held. The Olympic Games most likely only help to perpetuate the trends of inequality that are already present in global cities.

Recent history has shown that past Games have left host cities with capital development, increased infrastructure, and the perception of global legitimacy. They have also caused the displacement of populations, raising of rents, and even the execution of some of the most vulnerable populations in these global cities. These realities make it worth questioning the benefits of being the global city selected to host the international games.

Ironically, the greatest benefit cities gain from engaging in the Olympic process does not come from hosting the Olympics, but from the Olympic Candidature Process. Commonly referred to as the “bidding stages,” this is the two year period where cities compete to host the Olympics Games.

Advocates seek to enhance the profile of a city, as a tourist destination, by preparing it for Olympic consideration. Local actors band together to solicit financial support for the production of the games. City officials and stakeholders use political capital and goodwill to mobilize, attempting to sway public opinion by investing in planning, marketing, and infrastructure of cities.

These activities make a city more attractive to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and tourists. Being chosen as the site for a future Olympic competition is the culmination of this endeavor.

But host cities receive increased scrutiny that highlight the myriad problems generally unseen by outside observers. Such is the case with the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. Rio 2016 has made it apparent that the host of problems affecting a global city are worsened by being chosen as the host city for the Olympics, as government officials try to focus attention on the Olympics rather than social ills.

Rio de Janeiro faces numerous challenges in its effort to host the Olympics. Reports of effluent and the evidence of a drug resistant “super bacteria” in Guanabara Bay, human rights abuses, forced relocations, kidnappings, lack of security, overly militarized police, cost overruns, negligent construction, Olympic branded cocaine, human sex trafficking, and possible terror plots have created a narrative about this international celebration of athleticism and diplomacy lacking the usual pomp and circumstance standard during the games.

Some of these problems are exacerbated by the current state of Brazilian national politics, but many are problems that cities are supposed to be able to mitigate. These challenges have been present in Rio de Janeiro for some time and are not unique to this global city.

Human rights abuses have been alleged throughout the modern history of the Olympic Games. The most egregious examples of abuse occurred in cities where civil rights and liberties were generally not recognized by the national government. Hosting the Olympics gave the perception of legitimacy to national political regimes in those countries allowing them opportunity to perpetuate, and in some instances escalate, human rights abuses occurring in those regions. While American athletes were demanding that their humanity be recognized at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the Mexican government was taking that humanity away from its citizens. Recent AP reports suggest that Korean citizens were unjustly incarcerated and put to death during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Derisively referred to as the “Genocide Olympics,” due in part to China’s involvement with the crisis in Darfur, the 2008 Beijing Olympics cornered the market on human rights abuses. Numerous allegations peppered the news about Beijing including the abuse of migrant workers, a recurring theme in Olympic development, and media suppression.

Infrastructure development, or lack thereof, has been a cause for concern for numerous host cities. The construction of the facilities for the Montreal 1976 games were plagued by cost overruns, corruption, and mismanagement leaving the main stadium without a roof and unfinished for a decade. The attractiveness of the investment in downtown Atlanta preceding and following the 1996 Olympic Games contributed to overdevelopment in the city that has left thousands of vacant homes. Turner Field, the former Olympic Stadium repurposed to be the home of the Atlanta Braves, is also soon to be vacant. The amount of debt that Greece took on for the production of the 2004 Athens Olympics contributed to debt that brought on the country’s continuing economic crisis. The building of a new Athens airport and enhancements to transportation infrastructure were not enough to offset the very real costs of hosting the Olympics. The structures that were once used to showcase the greatest athletes in the world have fallen into a state of disrepair

Security issues continue to influence how cities approach the herculean task of providing safety at the Olympics. The 1972 Munich games were completely overshadowed by the kidnapping and execution of eleven Israeli Olympians. The security challenges posed by the events of the Munich Games contributed to increased security measures by future Olympic host cities, but these events highlighted security deficiencies of the Olympics and contributed to the revisiting of the discussion about the horrors of the Second World War. The Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the Summer Olympic Games of 1996 once again brought into question the various law enforcement strategies implemented to protect athletes and the public. Security spending would increase by more than three times for the Salt Lake City Winter Games of 2002. Brazilian police have already arrested 10 people involved in a terror plot against the Olympics. There have also been reports of Rio de Janeiro police officers allegedly kidnapping an individual for ransom.  

This incomprehensive listing of failures from one half century of cities hosting the Olympics suggests the immediate benefits of hosting the games should be measured in the long term. Any short term gains might be fleeting. The benefits of increased exposure brought on by an Olympic bid; investments in marketing, infrastructure, and planning, can be initiated at any time and not just when the Olympic bid process is underway.

Long term urban planning is necessitated to mitigate some of the challenges brought on by Olympic development. Some of these challenges are unavoidable due to the nature of cities. The cutting of corners demonstrated in this Olympics and others demonstrates the need to reconsider how the Games affect the public in host cities and rethink cities’ roles as Olympic stewards.

Shiny new buildings and improved transportation infrastructure are a boon for cities, but the human cost and complicity in human rights abuses is not and should not be acceptable to any decent observer.  

Madrid, Tokyo, and Chicago who lost out to Rio de Janeiro should breathe a collective sigh of relief.

See additional Olympic commentary from Juliana Kerr: Rio's Global Moment.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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