Wednesday, August 13, 2008

America's Price: Why the US Are Serial Olympic Hosts

Following the jumpin' Olympic Open Thread over on BMG, I decided to start a mini-series on site selection for the Olympics. I see the series running as follows:

1 - America's Price: Why the US Are Serial Hosts
2 - Who Picks the Host: 100 Faces
3 - What It Takes to Host, and Why Boston Doesn't Have It

I will react to responses and questions as we go along. While no expert, I am a devoted follower of the Olympics, completing two papers at university on the subject, including research from the 1976 archives. I attended the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and went through Olympic HQ in Lausanne, Switzerland as well (great museum). Oh, and if you want to hold to strong idealism about the Olympics, best skip this post.

Rule #1 of Site Selection: It's about the money, honey. In the Miss Universe pageant, there are three countries guaranteed to advance beyond the first round: the US, Venezuela, and the host. Why? It keeps the televisions on in those countries, guaranteeing more eyeballs for the ads and more revenue for the pageant (Venezuela is pageant-crazy, and we're, well, rich). Here be the money. The Pope spends a fair bit of time here in the United States. Why? Though thin on adherents, the United States funds much of the modern Catholic church; twenty billionaire friends of the Church in the United States matches the fiscal impact of an entire Latin American country.

And for the Olympics, here be the money. The current worldwide Olympic sponsors are: Coca-Cola, AtosOrigin, GE (incl. NBC), Johnson&Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, McDonald's, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa. Of the entire planet, these are the top 12. Broken down by national headquarters, this global movement carries at the top tier 1 sponsor each from China, Switzerland, France, South Korea, Japan, and Canada...and 6 American companies. Half of the top-line sponsors of the Olympic Movement are American. That title runs over $70 million per company. That's nearly half a billion dollars that the Olympic Movement gets from America.

Don't forget, Pierre de Coubertin was clear on the need to bring the United States into the games...after the first summer games were hosted in Athens, the second in his hometown of Paris (a disaster), they went to St. Louis (also a disaster.) Furthermore, in the wake of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, an exercise so fiscally disastrous that the bill was just paid off 2 years ago, the Games seemed so fiscally risky that Los Angeles had the only serious bid for the 1984 Games after Teheran dropped out. It was at those games that Peter Ueberroth's and the LAOOC developed the private partnership model that put the Olympics on sound financial footing.

So the financial model of the Olympic Movement is indeed Made in America...and funded in large part by America. I'm not saying that the 100-something mandarins who choose where to host the Olympics like that fact, but they accept it. As with, say, the United Nations or the Roman Catholic Church, the Olympic Movement realizes that American interest remains a key part of the organization's health.

Now, how to foster American interest in the Olympics. Hmm. Now, I'm not saying NBC and the IOC make a deal that America will host the games regularly...but I'm not saying they haven't. But I will offer a bit of evidence based on the schedule of the current Olympic Games. It's notable that the medal rounds of sports that most fascinate American viewers -- gymnastics and swimming -- occur as early as 10 in the morning local time. That's no good for China fans who actually attend the games (possibly leading to the ol' empty seat problem). Note that the finals for fencing or archery occur at a very reasonable 8 pm local time. Nor is this schedule any good for swim-crazy Australia...a country that relies on swimming for the majority of its medals can view the finals around noon their time. The quirky schedule doesn't even benefit the athletes -- ask Olympic giant Ian Thorpe, or the British.

NBC requested the change in order to show the results live in American prime time. Conspiracy theory? Nope -- the Chinese government says so. So, if we're willing to schedule the Olympic events to meet the needs of an American tv network, you don't think that host selection won't follow the same route? It's not as if a sports-crazy rich nation is a hard sell in any case, without pressing extra hard on the pedal. I mean, if a city can win the Olympics mainly due to the fact that its the hometown of the then Olympic chief/ex-Fascist minister, what is sacred?

So thanks for playing, Madrid, but you ain't getting the 2016 Olympic Games if the last host city is less than one thousand miles away. Rio, your day will come, but not in eight years. And Tokyo, you have a great bid. But Chicago 2016 can supply a peacock-festooned, Coke-drinkin, Kodak-clear, Big Mac-sized 5 million reasons it will be the host city, and they all have Ben Franklin's face on them. This isn't cocky American jingoism -- this is no way to run the Olympics -- but the truth isn't always what we'd like it to be.

Next installment: Who picks the games.

1 comment:

Ryan Adams said...

I still resist the notion that we've had a disproportionately high number of Olympics, at least compared to regions of the world able to put them on (money, infrastructure and access). 15 Summer Olympics in EU countries compared to 4 in America; 500 million population compared to 330. Europe should be at about a 2:1 advantage, though admittedly East Asian countries should start to get to become regular players now, as well, because there certainly exists the money, people, access and resources.

All that said, I sincerely doubt we'll get Chicago 2016. I do think you underestimate the politics and current anti-americanism going on there (and, honestly, who could blame them?). 2016's going to be at Rio. After that, the politics will have probably changed again and an American city will likely get it.