Only every four years during the Olympics are we allowed to indulge in obscure sports,
human interest stories and even a healthy bit of nationalism. But now that this year’s games in PyeongChang, South Korea, are over, we are now faced with assessing the viability and structure of the Olympics, especially that of the Winter Games, in the years to come. There are serious problems that face the Olympics and which need to be addressed looking forward.
Historically, host cities have displaced large numbers of citizens to clear space for
Olympic venues and amenities. In preparation for the 2008 Beijing games, the Chinese
government forced roughly 1.5 million citizens from their homes. In Vancouver two years later,
construction led to a housing squeeze, which increased homelessness in the area. This trend
has tended to disproportionately marginalize people of low economic status. In London during the run-up to the 2012 Games, many families were evicted by rent-gouging landlords. In 2016, over 70,000 Brazilians, mostly poor residents, were evicted from favelas to make room for the Olympic Park. In all, one study estimates around two million people have been displaced in the last 20 years by cities in order to accommodate Olympic facilities and venues.
For the PyeongChang Games, the village of Sukam was destroyed to make way for a
luxury resort, parking lots and a helicopter pad. These amenities sat on Mount Gariwang and
next to the Jeongseon Alpine Center, the central hub for the Games’ ski events. Just 14 of the
32 original homes in that village were rebuilt through government payouts on a hill within a quarter mile of the original village. The rest, renters and a few homeowners who, because of technicalities in the law, did not qualify for a land-grant, were given relocation assistance but were told to find a new place to live.
Not only has construction leading up to the Olympics negatively impacted local citizens,
it has taken a toll on the environment. The South Korean government cut 58,000 trees
from the ancient forest on Mount Gariwang to make way for the alpine course. According to
the nation’s forest service, the city had no other option. Mount Gariwang possessed the only
ridge in PyeongChang large enough to meet the regulations of the International Ski Federation.
This only adds to the climate change crisis that threatens the existence of winter sports.
According to USA Today, nearly half of the 21 cities that have held the Winter Olympics will not be consistently cold enough to host them again by mid-century. By the same date, the duration of snow season across the U.S. could be cut in half. By 2090, the length of the ski season could be reduced by up to 80 percent. City plans for the Olympics do not focus on sustainability measures. The PyeongChang Olympics Organizing Committee (POCOG) says it has begun planting trees to offset deforestation on Mount Gariwang, and organizers plan to reforest the Olympic ski course after the games. However, it is unclear who will pay, which brings up the increasing financial burden for cities that host the Olympics.
The rising costs of Olympic regulation facilities along with scant returns from tourism,
trade and foreign investment are dissuading cities from hosting the Olympics. Previous cities
have floundered, as shown by a Vox article titled “A Spectacular impracticality of putting on
the party could cause hosting bids to vanish altogether.” Each successive year has seen a fewer number of cities casting bids. Twelve cities put up bids for the 2004 Summer Olympics. That number shrank to five cities for the 2020 Olympics. Only two cities bid for the 2022 and 2024 Games.
South Korea is estimated to lose upwards of $10 billion from hosting the Olympics. After
having spent $13 billion, the country will only get back $2.5 billion, according to Andrew
Zimbalist. Extravagant to say the least, the brand new Olympic stadium with a seating capacity of 35,000 will be demolished after the Olympics. The stadium cost $109 million to build and was used just four times. This is a disappointment for the government and various think tanks who estimated a surplus anywhere between $18.5 to $60 billion.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) needs to consider making the Games more
sustainable and beneficial for all parties. One solution would be to rotate the Olympics among a handful of host cities able to maintain facilities for use every 16 to 20 years. This would help
solve the issues dealing with displacement, environmental degradation and financial debt that
the current arrangement raises. The IOC could also create incentives for bid cities come up with plans that are socially ethical and that propose modest budgets.