Saturday 22 September 2018

Vincent Hogan: Rio's grand larceny is the reality of the Olympic legacy

'Not for profit' ethos should never be mistaken for 'opposed to profit'

Rio’s famous Maracana stadium has fallen into a state of disrepair as Brazil counts the cost of Olympics. Photo: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)
Rio’s famous Maracana stadium has fallen into a state of disrepair as Brazil counts the cost of Olympics. Photo: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

News that Rio's Olympic Park is already a crumbling cemetery could surely register as a surprise only to someone who has been wandering around the Amazon for the last quarter of a century. A soothsaying goat could have seen this coming.

Every Olympics gets sold as some kind of restorative project for its host city, but the moment they sign that 300-page contract drawn up by the cold, chubby fingers of an IOC lawyer queasiness kicks in.

The natives of Rio began to smell a rat here long before Opening Ceremony fireworks boomed up out of the Maracana.

Bear in mind that Brazilian people essentially turned against the hosting of the World Cup (think about that carefully) two years earlier because they understood the implications of cheques being signed that couldn't be honoured.

Those cheques ran to a reputed $9billion. So, by the time the paper doves were released last August, the humour of most cariocas' had curdled into anger.

The state of Rio had, by then, declared itself broke, a plight rescued only by a $700 million government bail-out.

I have attended the last six Olympiads and nowhere did the Games feel more awkward or inappropriate than in Rio.

Now we hear the Maracana is already in disrepair and vandalised; the golf course has become a weed-strewn ghost; the Deodoro venue cluster is closed; and the supposed jewel in the crown, Barra Olympic Park, has failed to find private sector tenants, opening only at weekends as a kind of Kodak curiosity.

And the Athletes' Village? It sits fenced off and empty, less than 300 of its 3,604 apartments sold in a city where one third of dwellings lack a proper sewage connection.


All of which begs one simple question. Was any of this really unforeseeable?

Rio's topographic beauty was always going to sell the lie that - as a host city - it was Heaven-sent. But the truth is the summer Games had the feel of being all but held together with masking tape.

Pretty much the only thing that Rio got in return for financial rape was a metro line for the city's middle classes.

Still, 'legacy' and 'sustainability' are the IOC's favourite words as we know from Thomas Bach's Olympic Agenda 2020.

But, when a venue as storied as the Maracana is left padlocked and cut off from electricity within months of the Big Top folding, it gets just a little difficult to swallow that kind of sanctimony.

The IOC describes itself as a 'not-for-profit' organisation, yet it generates billions in revenue while essentially indemnifying itself against having to pick up any of a host city's unpaid bills.

In other words, it carries itself like a boy-scout movement, yet reserving the right to play the legal heavy.

It was informative to hear the eulogy to Pat Hickey delivered by outgoing OCI secretary Dermot Henihan at their recent EGM in Dublin.

To emphasise his greatness as an Olympic servant, Henihan pointed out that Hickey's presidency of the European Olympic Committee had left that body with "a healthy bank balance to the order of €15m".

He also informed the meeting that the OCI's bank balance - before that irksome matter of the former president's arrest in Rio and attendant fire-fighting bills - stood at €2.3m.

'Not for profit', I suppose, should never be mistaken for 'opposed to profit', then.

True, some host cities get things largely right. Los Angeles ran an unheard of $225m surplus in 1984 and is still enthusiastically chasing another shot in 2024.

Most venues used for London 2012 have found post-Olympic use and, of course, West Ham supporters even have that red, metal vulgarity of Anish Kapoor's wretched sculpture to look at before and after every home game.

But Greece was pushed into economic crisis by the $15b price of the Athens Games in 2004 and the majority of its venues have been, essentially, abandoned.

The shortfall for that Olympics was said to amount to roughly €50,000 for each Greek household.

Beijing, reputedly, spent $41b four years later for an event that has left the Chinese city awash with what has been categorised as 'ruin porn' while the cost of Sydney 2000 ran to almost triple the original budget

Those of us who covered Atlanta '96 remember it as just a boiling traffic nightmare, a city stamped with greed and hucksterism and, of course, left winded by the tragedy of a pipe-bomb exploding with fatal consequences in Centennial Park.

But Atlanta, wisely, chose to be brutally unsentimental about its Olympic venues and, much to the IOC's expressed chagrin, downsized their 80,000 capacity Olympic stadium immediately after those games to re-invent it as a new, 50,000-capacity home for Major League baseball team Atlanta Braves.

When the Braves then relocated last year, Georgia State University headed up a development plan that will see it reshaped again to become a 30,000-capacity football stadium. The IOC might prefer the site to house a crumbling 80,000 seater monument to Olympia, but Atlanta believes in few things more deeply than it believes in profit.

The historic Fulton County Stadium was demolished and turned into a carpark within a year of those '96 Games; the Olympic velodrome was sold and Atlanta has found use for most of its "legacy" infrastructure, albeit the Olympic tennis complex (where Andre Agassi won gold) lies deserted.

The idealist view of an Olympic Games is that they should not only bequeath state-of-the-art venues to a host city, but also regenerate neglected districts and inspire children to take up sport.

It's a grand philosophy, but one undermined by a history of ruthless evictions and civil rights being steamrolled in the inevitable rush to build vanity architecture.

Quite the most stomach-churning expenditure in Olympic history was Vladimir Putin's splashing of $41b on the Sochi Winter Games that we now know Russia also saw fit to sabotage with state-sponsored doping.

Essentially candidate hosts for an Olympiad today can be narrowed down to countries pre-occupied with a boosting of prestige at any cost or cities from non-democratic, totalitarian countries where the people, essentially, have no voice.

How quaint to think it's exactly a quarter of a century since Gay Mitchell's push for a Dublin bid to host the 2016 Summer Games that was deemed cost-effective at the time by Price Waterhouse.

But then this was a period when Wimbledon FC were, reputedly, considering relocation to Clondalkin and calling themselves The Dublin Dons.

Safe to say a few bullets have been dodged.

Irish Independent

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