Towards a Distributed Olympics

Nobody loves the Olympic Games more than I do. Yet even I have to admit that actually hosting the Games can be a lot of work. Even for a world-class city like Vancouver or London, the Olympics poses real challenges. To wit:

1. They build enormously expensive world-class sports facilities, and then only really use them once.

2. The transportation logistics, housing demands, and sheer crowding are overwhelming and disruptive for the people who live in the host city.

3. It’s surprisingly difficult for fans to see more than a couple of their favourite competitions, whether they’re trying to get a ticket in person or looking for an unpopular sport on television at an odd hour.

How could we address these problems? The Olympics is not as resistant to change as you might think. After all, the Olympic Torch Relay was actually introduced only recently, by Germany, shortly before World War Two. So here are a few proposals for how we could smooth things out.

The host city gets to host the Olympics for forty years.

Half a billion dollars for a curling rink and a few swimming pools sounds kind of expensive if they’re only going to use them — I mean REALLY use them to its fullest extent, and show them off to the world — exactly once. But amortized over ten or twenty successive Games, it starts to sound a little more reasonable. Issue a forty-year bond and it practically pays for itself!

Plus, just think how good a city would get at hosting the Olympics after two or three tries. There are always a few last-minute glitches the first time you do anything that big. But after ten or twenty years, they would know exactly what to expect. The host city would be champions at redirecting traffic, opening ceremonies, scheduling swim races, and all the other little details that make up the big event.

Host each group of sports in its own city.

Hosting the full Olympics twenty times really raises the stakes. Forty years of all sports all the time starts to sound a little daunting. And imagine the disappointment of the non-host cities, their citizens perhaps never hosting the Games in their lifetimes. But who says you have to host all the events in the same place?

Some events naturally cluster together: all the different kinds of downhill skiing events, for example. So why not build some really world-class skiing facilities somewhere, host forty years of skiing events, and do it extremely well. That city would be the skiing capital of the world. In the off years, they would have tourists and amateur athletes taking advantage of their slopes and training facilities. But some other city could build a totally amazing skating rink and have all the skating events in their city. They would get to be the skating Mecca for forty years. And a third city could have a giant swimming pool and the highest diving boards in the world. Each city could focus on its strengths and not have to shore up its weaknesses.

The main advantage of splitting up all the sports is that each host city would have a fraction of the total amount of work to do. Not only would they have fewer events to coordinate, but as the number of visitors and athletes dropped, so would the demands on the city infrastructure. Given only the number of tourists who are interested in skiing, they might even be able to handle them with their existing public transit system and surveillance cameras. And they would only have to pay for one world-class sports facility, not dozens.

Wouldn’t this draw all the nations of the world together? Each of us proudly hosting our own part of the games, and celebrating with all the other cultures hosting theirs.

Each sport occurs at a different time of the year.

Why do all the sports have to happen all at once in a big rush? Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable to be able to watch each sport on its own terms, without worrying about what you’re missing at the same time? No sport needs to be considered more or less important than the others if they all have their own time to shine. Sure, sports that depend on the weather like skiing and beach volleyball need to happen at a certain time of year. But for most sports, especially the indoor variety, you could just as easily have them in March or October.

What if each sport-specific host city chose its own month for its Olympics? Then the media attention and fan excitement could travel from city to city in a rolling wave. The television networks would finally have time to show all the sports, yet this wouldn’t crowd out any other important television content. Perhaps there could even be an all-Olympics channel, showing all the present competitions and highlights from years past. If we spread the games out evenly over the full four year cycle, the Olympic flame would never be extinguished.

Just think.

A far-reaching, never-ending, totally affordable Olympic Games. With a few tweaks, we can transform the Olympics from an all-too-brief paroxysm of nationalist fervor to a continual celebration of athletic excellence and international cooperation.

Update

In 2010, Charles Banks-Altkruse wrote in the New York Times that we should Give the Olympics a Home. In 2015, Professor John Rennie Short had a similar (though less ambitious) proposal in the Washington Post: We should host the Olympics in the same place every time.

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