Call this payback for the International Olympic Committee’s decades of greed and deceit.
Once a prize that cities on every continent fought over, so blinded were they by the promise of civic and infrastructure improvements, the Olympics are now being recognized for the economy-busting boondoggle they are. Calgary on Tuesday joined Sapporo, Japan; Sion, Switzerland; and Graz, Austria, in saying “thanks, but no thanks” for the right to throw the IOC a lavish party in February 2026, and there’s a good possibility bids in Italy and Stockholm could soon follow.
This isn’t a 2026 oddity, either. More cities (seven) dropped out of the bidding for the 2022 and 2024 Olympics than stayed in (five). Several others took themselves out of the running before the official process began.
And, really, who can blame them? The graft and corruption that was part and parcel of Rio 2016 has worsened Brazil’s economic collapse. Meanwhile, the Olympic park is a graveyard of crumbling venues and the waterways that were supposed to be cleaned up remain cesspools.
The flame was barely out at the Pyeongchang Games in February when civic leaders suggested they might have to raze some venues because they couldn’t be repurposed and there wasn’t money to pay for the upkeep of empty buildings. Never mind the environmental damage done to build a ski venue that lasted only as long as the Olympics did.
Oh, the IOC talks a good game, saying it’s serious about reform so that no city again spends itself into oblivion.
“I can tell you for ’26, we are ruthless on this: Don’t even consider building a venue if there is not a 50-year legacy plan,” Christophe Dubi, executive director of the Olympic Games, told The Associated Press in September.
But Tokyo’s preparation for the Summer Games in 2020 reveals the lie in that.
Tokyo was supposed to restore economic sanity to the Olympics. By using several venues left from the 1964 Games and keeping its plan compact, organizers initially said it would cost just $7 billion to host the 2020 Olympics.
Compared with the $13 billion the Rio Olympics cost and the whopping $50 billion price tag for Sochi, Tokyo would be a bargain!
Then came the changes. This venue wouldn’t work and this sport had to be moved and this arena had to be built. Now the venues are sprawled across the metropolitan area, some as far as an hour away, and a Japanese government report estimates the tab for Tokyo 2020 will exceed $25 billion.
With 18 months still to go before the Games begin, who knows how much higher it will climb.
“I think that people had enough of the establishment telling us what to do, what to think,” Sean Chu, a Calgary councilman and fierce opponent of a 2026 bid, told The Calgary Herald on Tuesday night after 56 percent of voters said they did not want the city to bid for the Winter Olympics.
“They tell you to spend millions, billions, it’s good for you.”
Hear that IOC?
Yes, it’s bid organizers and civic leaders who dream up these plans so grandiose they make a 5-year-old’s letter to Santa look spartan. But the IOC is supposed to be the adult in the room, and it has shown no interest in reining in these fanciful projects.
Why should it? The IOC isn’t the one footing the bill. So long as IOC members have five-star hotels to rest their heads, cars to whisk them to venues, Michelin star-quality food in the “IOC family” lounges and per diems that can go as high as $900, they don’t really care about pesky things like budget overruns and taxes on the populace.
Maybe a few see the storm clouds on the horizon. The rest are either so arrogant or oblivious they believe there’s always going to be a city — or an autocrat — willing to take their sucker bet.
But the payoff for hosting an Olympics is, too often, fool's gold. The Calgary referendum is just the latest sign that cities are getting wise to the IOC's games.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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