As the International Olympic Committee works to select the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics, it is finding itself facing an unusual problem. Almost nobody seems to want to host the games. Of the original six cities that bid on the games, three dropped out of the running, leaving only Oslo, Beijing, and Almaty. With popular support for the games dwindling in Oslo, the IOC may be faced with a choice between the two cities with the lowest scoring bids. The Olympics have long been the world’s most prestigious sporting event, so why aren’t countries lining up for the opportunity to host the 2022 games?
To start, finding a host for the Winter Olympics is a bit of a numbers’ game. Geography can be a major limiting factor to a city’s ability to host the Winter Olympics, while the same may not be true for the Summer Olympics. In order for a city to even be considered to host the games, it must be in close proximity to high-elevation mountains and it must have a cold, snowy climate during the winter. As such, the pool of potential hosts is already rather limited.
Furthermore, the Winter Olympics are much smaller and less popular than the Summer Olympics. The Summer Olympics feature 41 different athletic disciplines, while the Winter Olympics feature only 15. Only 88 countries qualified to compete in the 2014 Sochi games compared to 204 in the 2012 London games, and the number of athletes fielded by each country is typically fewer as well. This means that TV ratings are lower and physical attendance numbers at the games is smaller.
Despite this, the overhead costs remain high. The Winter Olympics require the construction of a number of potentially unprofitable projects, such as major roadways to secluded mountain villages and multimillion-dollar facilities for obscure sports like bobsled and ski jumping. The high cost of the Winter Olympics was magnified by the 2014 games in Sochi. A combination of rampant corruption and poor general planning and execution made Sochi the most expensive Olympics ever at a total cost of more than $50 billion.
However, there is no reason that the Winter Olympics, when planned and executed properly, cannot see a positive return on investment, both in terms of profitability and long-term economic growth. Take the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, for example. Not only did the games garner $101 million in profit, the city received improved infrastructure and public transit, the greater area saw long-term growth in tourism and the ski industry, and the facilities constructed for the games, including the sled track and ski jumps, remain in use.
Nonetheless, just because the Olympics can be a good investment does not mean they are necessarily the best investment, as the risk of losing money is high, and preparation ties up billions of dollars of public funds that could otherwise be put towards things that are arguably more useful. People living in potential host cities are increasingly expressing that sentiment. Stockholm and Krakow canceled their bids earlier this year due to a lack of local support. Oslo, the IOC favorite of the three finalists, seems to be moving in that direction as public support for hosting the games has fallen to 36 percent, with the majority of the population arguing that they would rather see billions of dollars spent on things like schools and hospitals than a sporting event. If Almaty and Beijing become the only remaining bidders, it will be telling that the only cities not to cancel their bids are the ones where the local population has little, if any, say in the matter.
The struggle to find a host for the 2022 Olympics may simply be the earliest and most visible indicator of a growing trend of disinterest in hosting major multinational sporting events. The decision to host these events is becoming less a question of prestige and more a question of basic economics, and ever increasingly, the numbers are not adding up. Although the games present an opportunity for growth, that opportunity comes with a great deal of risk. More and more people around the world are deciding that taking that risk is not quite worth it.