A legacy that few can afford
It is easily the most foreboding quote in the history of the Olympics, certainly from the business end of things. 'The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,' said Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau in 1970 after his city was awarded the 1976 Olympiad. Thirty years after the Games ended, the city made their final payment on a US$1.6 billion debt. No word how many men went into labour that day in Montreal but Olympic legacies are no longer a laughing matter.
Of course, little of this will be on the mind of the billions enjoying tonight's US$42 million opening ceremony extravaganza. For the next 17 days the eyes of the world will be squarely fixed on England's capital and it will be pride and place for a new Britain that, if history is a guide, could very well look like the old Britain in four years' time when the Olympic flame is lit in Rio.
Four years ago Beijing was the epicentre of the universe. Today, a number of the facilities there are derelict and depressed. For Beijing, though, every nickel invested was worth it in what was unofficially the coming out party of the new Chinese empire. With the second largest economy in the world still growing by leaps and bounds, China could afford the financial loss in return for the propaganda gain.
Greece was not nearly so lucky with a number of economists claiming the cost of hosting the 2004 Olympics in Athens was the catalyst for the country's current economic crisis. It's a lesson that London organisers claim to have taken to heart as they have adopted an ethos of 'sustainability' in regards to facilities and infrastructure. Despite their best efforts though, no buyer and principal tenant has been found for the US$760m Olympic Stadium. Heathrow Airport is still an absolute dump and that will be just as true in 17 days when the world leaves. That legacy will remain untouched and only time will tell how many facilities will be selected to host a dwindling collection of annual world-class sporting events which are greatly desired by a number of international locales.
But never mind sustainability, what about desirability? The International Olympic Committee has put such exorbitant demands on hosting cities that potential candidates for future games are shrinking by the second. The cost of security alone is now over a billion dollars. London beat out heavyweight metropolises Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow for this Olympiad and Rio defeated Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. Next year when the IOC decides the host for 2020 only three candidates will be in the running with Madrid and Tokyo joined by Istanbul. And while the collapsed Spanish economy may have recovered by then, there is little chance the country will be on its financial feet when the IOC decides next September. That leaves two cities in the running as well as a red-faced IOC which expressed dismay that no American city was willing to be a candidate. The US has already hosted four Summer Games and apparently realised that with the country mired in economic uncertainty, now is not a good time to get grandiose.
There were, however, more than a few snickers when the Azerbaijan capital of Baku announced its candidacy for both the 2016 and 2020 Games. Considering the country of less than 10 million people has been independent of Russia for a mere 21 years, it was considered laughable. But even though you can't find Azerbaijan on the map with trained bloodhounds, the country has vast oil reserves and has already announced its candidacy for the 2024 Games. The idea that Baku will likely host a Summer Olympics before Chicago is no longer one of life's rich ironies; it is one of life's realities. Since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, oil-rich locales lacking in global cachet and glamour seem to be the future for mega-sporting gatherings. Fifa and the IOC like the fact they are less hassle and more money.
So enjoy these London Games. Enjoy the iconic shots of Tower Bridge and Westminster Abbey and Olympic tennis at Wimbledon. And when the runners are in the blocks for the highly anticipated 100 metres final, try not to think of what will become of the Olympic Stadium four years from now. I know I will be focusing on the present because in the not so distant future, when these mega events are in stadiums rising up from indistinguishable piles of sand, memories of the great cities and great games may be all we have. Legacy, indeed.