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Will Greece Ever Be Permanent Home to Olympic Games?

Olympic Runners on Amphora
Black-figured Olympic runners with the torch. Illustration in the ancient Greek style. The concept of the Olympic Games. Credit: RickyBennison Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

As the Tokyo Olympics will begin in just a few weeks, without spectators, perhaps it is finally time to make Greece the permanent home of the Olympic Games.

For weeks there had been much controversy as to how participation will take place in Tokyo because of the pandemic and safety restrictions in place. And now as the coronavirus variants mushroom across the globe even a staple of the sporting world will be victimized.

As the originator of the games, Greece could insist that Hellas become the permanent home for the Olympic games.

Greece successfully hosted the 2004 Games in Athens.  Today, Greece is welcoming tourists back while Japan is under tight restrictions.

The Olympic Games are the most watched and the most expensive events on earth. Half the world’s population is expected to see coverage of the Tokyo Olympics. This summer, the Tokyo Olympics will have triggered expenditures of between $12 billion and $28 billion. These amounts are not atypical for a Summer Olympic Games. The event is one of the most expensive serial human interventions in the world. Their high political priority and the global attention they attract, give the Olympic Games the potential to alter decision-making at the national and even international levels as they reach people around the world.

As the games were ready to launch in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 with fear of disaster, the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) led an initiative and petitioned the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2016 to make Greece the permanent home of the Olympic Games.

And there was a lot of noise following that initiative. In the five years that have followed it has been relatively quiet.

Greek Reporter spoke with Paul Glastris, of the Washington Monthly and one of the original proponents for bringing the games back to Greece in 2016.

Glastris spoke of what had changed since he initially advocated, five years before, that the Games have a permanent home in Greece. “The most important shift has been the steady strengthening of Greece’s relationship with Washington and with governments throughout the Eastern Mediterranean,” Glastris said.  “This has bought Athens considerable goodwill in places that matter. Whether that goodwill can usefully be brought to bear on Greece’s behalf with the International Olympic Committee I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Proponent Recommends Petitioning Greek Politicians

Greek Reporter asked Glastris if there was some action that fans of the Games or Greeks themselves could take. “My understanding is that the biggest hindrance to this idea is a lack of appetite for it, among the Greek political class,” he stated. “If Greek elected officials and party leaders don’t want to fight for bringing the Olympic Games back to Greece permanently, it’s never going to happen. So probably the most effective thing Greeks in Greece and abroad can do, is to let these political leaders know that this is a priority to them.”

In 2016 Glastris argued that clear solution to the disastrous impact of the Games is a permanent location. On an emotional level, athletes may not care where the Olympic Games are held. They simply want to compete in the Olympics. And there could be something meaningful about competing in the same spot where champions played years before.

According to Glastris, the Olympic Games, do not just involve a lot of investment in physical capital. They also involve developing human capital, which is completely wasted when the Olympics leaves town.

And as the infrastructure is already in place, thanks to the 2004 games, Athens has an excellent public transportation system.  Roadways would not require a massive new economic investment nor the massive refurbishing of many of the sites and buildings designed for 2004.

There are three main arguments to host the Olympic games in Greece. Greece is the originator and home of the original Olympics, the bidding process that is corrupt, will be eliminated and the massive cost to reinvent a city as a new Olympic venue every four years, will be eliminated.

Olympic Games Greece
The scene at Athens Panathenian Stadium, constructed completely from marble, ready for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Credit: Dkoukoul Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Traveling Olympic Games Harm or Hinder Local Economies

Local boosters for cities making bids frequently argue that the Olympics will produce a wave of economic benefits. Custom facilities, which have to be built quickly and to an absolutely hard deadline are necessary, which will undoubtedly lead to cost overruns to meet the hard deadlines.  Transporting people between the venues may require costly infrastructure upgrades. The sites will need to be maintained, or turned into something else once the games finish.

And the economic benefits? Cities that host the Olympics don’t even necessarily see a burst of tourism. Although the Olympics certainly attracts a lot of sports fans, it scares off a lot of other tourists who want to avoid the traffic and other issues that might be problematic for a host city.

Some of the facilities can later be repurposed for revenue-generating sports but public stadiums do not have the best record at boosting local economic activity. Some of the infrastructure improvements, like investment in roads, may pay off, as long as these improvements facilitate local movement and not only Olympics movement.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) state their sustainability efforts include only building new sports venues in host cities that don’t have them. “If a host does not need a new permanent sports venue, its leaders will not be asked to build one,” they said. “This has significantly reduced the costs of organizing the Games while ensuring their fundamental values of universality and diversity.”

The IOC was founded in 1894 under the name the Olympic Congress. The non-governmental sports organization has no real oversight, and seemingly, no pressure to change the way things have been done.

According to a sustainability study conducted on the Olympic Games from 1992 to 2020 “the stakeholders of the Olympic Games paint them as paragons of sustainability.”

The study, An Evaluation of the Sustainability of the Olympic Games, states “Our analysis reveals that this is not the case. The Olympic Games between 1992 and 2020 have a medium sustainability level. Salt Lake City 2002 and Albertville 1992 have the best records but did not achieve high sustainability overall. There are no Olympics that score highly in all or even the majority of the indicators of our model.”

Professor Jules Boykoff of Pacific University, author of four books on the Olympics, about issues associated with being a host city for the games, was recently interviewed on National Public Radio. He said, “I want to see the International Olympic Committee step up and be accountable. And I’d say that one of the main ways to make the Olympics better is to give critical thinking athletes more spaces at the table. We’re in the middle of what we might call the athlete empowerment era, and there are many smart, critical thinking athletes who participated in the Olympics and would know how to make them better, not just for the athletes, and that should definitely be on the top of the list, but also for everyday people in the host cities.”

Boykoff said “I’m a deep believer in the power of sports. I played professional soccer in the United States, and I even had the good fortune of representing the U.S. Olympic soccer team in international matches. So I’m not some grumpy academic sitting in my office with my smoking jacket thinking about ways I can destroy sports.”

IOC Pervasive, Least Accountable Organizations

He said “The International Olympic Committee has to be one of the most pervasive, yet least accountable organizations in the world, sports-related or otherwise. Until we get where we can hold them accountable, it’s going to be difficult to change. That means we’re only left with the athletes to stand up and speak out, break rules, and maybe even challenge the Olympic system, the corporate sponsors to back out, or the broadcasters to say, ‘This isn’t worth our money anymore.’”

Boykoff is a harsh critic of the IOC. “During the bid phase of the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee is super friendly. But once that host city contract is signed, it has just almost zero accountability. There’s no oversight. When they bust their budget, nothing happens to them. They hop on their planes and they head off to the next venue.”

The professor added that when the games finally arrive, they are over budget and not meeting deadlines to prepare the venues. “For starters, it’s because of the fact that they lowball numbers in the first place. And then second, because you have these hard deadlines and things that you just can’t anticipate, that allows construction workers, the firms that are doing the construction, to charge more as the deadline gets closer.”

The upcoming host cities for the summer games include Paris 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

A clear solution to the disastrous impact of the Games migrating from city to city is a permanent location. On an emotional level, athletes may not care where the Olympic Games are held. They simply want to compete in the Olympics. And there could be something meaningful about competing in the same spot where champions played years before.

Letter to IOC From HALC 2016

In a letter sent to the IOC, by HALC,  detailing the three main arguments are that the games should be held in their birthplace,:

“Dear Members of The International Olympic Committee:

We urge you to explore making Greece the permanent home of the summer Olympics.

The first modern Olympics were held in Greece in 1896, and since then, Greece has lobbied for the return of the Olympics. It’s not just Greece proposing the idea. There is a groundswell of support for the idea from analysts, columnists and newspapers around the world.

Those speaking out in support of a permanent home for the Olympics point to deficiencies in the host city bidding process, the massive cost to cities to build the infrastructure necessary to host the Olympics, and the fact that many of these projects simply go to waste after the Olympics are over.

Hosting the Games in a permanent location helps to address all of these problems. There are several ideas circulating, from having Greece be part of a series of permanent cities to having different cities host the Olympics in Greece every four years. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that one is needed.

It would be fitting to bring the Games back to their ancient home. We urge you to consider the idea and hope you will find, as we have, that a permanent home for the summer Olympics in Greece is the most practical, rational and hopeful way forward toward strengthening the Olympics for generations to come.”

It is not Greeks only who argue for the return of the Olympics to their birthplace. Academics around the world have argued that the Games should have a permanent home where they belong.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said Greece would be an environmentally safe location to host the Olympics every four years and the Games would boost the Greek economy.

Others argue that the games need to expand their reach. The vision of Pierre de Coubertin in reviving the Olympics in 1896 was of a “perambulating games,” whose aim was to take the values of sport and the Olympic ideal of education through sport around the world, exhibiting the basic values of old-fashioned liberalism—freedom, equality, fairness and the rule of law. And if home ground serves as an advantage, won’t the sites chosen confer an unfair advantage on the host countries’ athletes?

Greece OIympic Games
From the Olympic Games held in Athens at the Kalimarmaro in 1886. Credit:  Tkoletsis  Creative Commons  4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic

Greek King Proposed Greece Permanent Home to Olympics In 1896

After the end of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the Greek king viewed it as such a success that he asked the IOC to consider making Athens the permanent home of the Olympics. In a toast, King George I of Greece said he hoped “foreigners… will remember Athens as the peaceful meeting place of all nations, as the tranquil and permanent seat of the Olympic Games.”

But Coubertin was committed to the rotation model. Eventually the Games became something that cities started to compete for. They really wanted the opportunity to show off to the rest of the world and demonstrate that they, too, could host such a large-scale international event.

Soon after, the U.S. Olympic team at the time endorsed King George’s idea, writing that due to the existing infrastructure, Greece’s ‘competent’ administration, and the historical legacy, “these games should never be removed from their native soil.”

Now if only Greek politicians, the IOC and the world will listen. Maybe the Games can come home to Greece in 2036?

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