The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The Olympics are a great sports event. But they also cause great harm. Host cities routinely lose enormous amounts of money on the games, and end up with decaying stadiums that have little or no value. Even worse, governments often forcibly displace large numbers of people from their homes and businesses in order to make room for Olympic venues. Over 1 million people lost their homes for the 2008 Beijing games alone. Brazil has similarly evicted large numbers of people for the currently ongoing Rio Olympics, and even more to build stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. Most of those evicted are the poor and people lacking in political power. The Olympics also often become propaganda showcases for authoritarian regimes, as happened with the 2008 Olympics in China, and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In an earlier era, the same problem arose on an even more egregious scale with the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin, and the 1980 games in the Soviet Union.
None of this has to happen. We can reform the Olympics to put an end to it. The forcible evictions are perhaps the easiest problem to fix. The International Olympic Committee and the international community more generally should insist that organizers commit to building the necessary venues without forcibly displacing residents. If a city cannot or will not do that, it should not be allowed to host the games. No sports event is worth the forcible displacement of innocent people from their homes.
We can also put an end to the economic harm caused by the Olympics by insisting on private funding, instead of government subsidies. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, almost the only modern games to avoid massive losses, did so by relying on almost entirely on private funds. Government subsidies for sports facilities have a strong tendency to cause more economic harm than benefit. Private investors have stronger incentives to use resources efficiently, since their own money is at stake. And if they do err, at least the taxpayers won't be left holding the bag.
Finally, we can end the use of the games as propaganda tool for repressive regimes by limiting host rights to liberal democracies. If the IOC again awards the games to authoritarians, the West should boycott. The mere threat of a large-scale boycott might well disincentivize such regimes from trying to host in the first place, and prevent the IOC from awarding them the games if they do bid.
There is even a way that all three problems can be solved simultaneously: instead of rotating to a new city every four years, the summer and winter Olympics can each be held at a permanent host site. That cuts down on construction costs and potential evictions by eliminating the need to build new facilities each time. And it should be possible to find permanent homes that are located in liberal democratic states, thus eliminating the problem of authoritarian propaganda.
The idea of a permanent home for the games is not a new one. It is how the ancient Greeks ran the original Olympics, which inspired the modern games. Modern reformers have at times suggested a similar approach for our own games. For almost a thousand years, the ancient games had a permanent home at Olympia. On this, as on some other issues, we have much to learn from the experience of the ancients.