For a few weeks in 2004, Athens, Greece, was the planet’s center of attention. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge touted the 28th Summer Olympiad, the first Olympics hosted in Greece in more than a century, as “unforgettable, dream games.”
Overall, Athens captured the imagination of millions. The games had their fair share of memories. Athens held the first Olympics that Michael Phelps participated in, and it successfully avoided massive security breaches as the first Summer Olympics after 9/11.
What many don’t know, however, is the large scar the Olympics left after Athens invested more than $11 billion in Olympic infrastructure.
In 2014, the Athens Olympic Village is a ghost town, a stagnant landmark illustrating modern innovation from the mid-2000s.
In only a 10-year period, nearly every building used for the 28th Summer Olympiad — 21 of the 22 venues, to be exact — is gated off. Athens abandoned them. Athens public officials unsuccessfully tried to rally post-Olympic interest in obscure sports like racquetball and handball. They’ve since put the entire Olympic village up for sale, which is still without a buyer.
Even worse, the expensive infrastructure necessary for the Olympics had Greek taxpayers paying 7 billion euros (about $9.5 billion), which, at the time, was 6.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Even before the Great Recession, Greece was struggling financially. The European Union put Greece under financial monitoring in 2005. Since then, Greece has spent 500 million euros in maintaining the abandoned site. In a way, the 2004 Olympics foreshadowed the Mediterranean’s turmoil and economic malaise.
This eerie and disturbing collapse is not unique to Athens. Swaths of former Olympic sites in Beijing, Sarajevo and Montreal, along with the fiscal burdens of each, are still visible. Some cities, such as Atlanta and Sydney, have been able to make use of their former Olympic infrastructure.
However, a strong basic economics principle still applies. The over-supply of structures necessary for the games does not match long-term demand for the country, which causes prices to collapse alongside the once magnificent sporting sites.
To avoid future collapses, the IOC should try to host the Olympics in a few rotating permanent locations. The site consistency might be able to keep costs low and interest sparked over interregnum periods. A permanent location could also invest more time and money into security advances, which continue to plague the Olympics in Sochi.
Instead of one central location to host, three or four hosts around the world could ease diplomatic concerns. Summer Olympic hosts could be in central and relatively neutral locations, such as Central America, Southeast Asia and Mediterranean Europe. Winter Olympic sites could be in Canada, Switzerland and northern Japan. Each site would rotate every 12 years, giving each site enough time to modernize with repairs, security technologies and additions.
The Olympic sites would be easily accessible to multiple transportation modes and would contain the appropriate infrastructure. High-speed trains from nearby large cities could connect the site. Multi-modal hubs would be able to accommodate planes, trains and cars, in addition to futuristic modes of spectator transportation. Depending on the site’s distance from other areas, the game could showcase Elon Musk’s touted hyperloop (a high-speed rail) or Google’s driverless vehicle. The Olympics could become not only a site for sporting marvel, but also a showcase for technological innovation.
Rotating permanent neutral sites would also likely ease political concerns. The Winter Olympics in Sochi have been a mess of human and animal rights allegations. Vladimir Putin has made it clear that gay individuals are not exactly welcome, while the city of Sochi has killed hundreds of stray dogs in preparation for the Olympics. The IOC could choose hosts, or make deals with potential host cities, to uphold a laundry list of missions or laws.
Finally, the Olympics would be a haven for players and spectators alike. Due to security concerns and terrorist threats, many American athletes, including Minnesota Wild player Zach Parise, told their families to stay home. The Olympics should always revolve around the hardworking athletes, not around potential threats. Permanent Olympic locations would allow the IOC to establish state-of-the-art security systems at every site.
Athens is now a poster child for Olympic site failure a decade after the torch came and went. The IOC shouldn’t allow the city’s experience to doom future host cities. Permanent locations would likely cause some heated debate but would likely mitigate many of the Olympics’ biggest problems.