Originally posted by Braden Keith at The Swimmer's Circle.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India were, by most accounts, a failure. Between last-minute completion of event venues, injuries at test events, terrorist threats, lack of security, reports of sloppy construction, and the now-infamous Delhi Belly that many athletes are reportedly still feeling the effects of well after leaving the country, the event left a lot to be desired. And as such, I’ve got a serious bone to pick with the collective international governing bodies–which I will henceforth refer to as the IGB–of the sporting world. It seems as though lately, these governing bodies have been putting so much effort into bringing the world’s backwoods and slums into the sporting fore-front that they have neglected the true nature of selecting these host cities.
I began to really get frustrated when I heard that Baku, Azerbaijan was selected as one of seven semi-finalist for the 2016 Olympic Games. While most people I know couldn’t pick out Azerbaijan on a map if you gave them 10 tries, I am quite familiar with the country, as my parents were Baku residents for 3 years.
Let me break this down for you. In Baku, 99% of the wealth is concentrated in government employees and foreigners, while much of the population lives in poverty. Traffic drives 6 cars wide on a 3-lane road, with horns seemingly connected to both the gas and brake pedals of cars. The corruption is so rampant, and the government so xenophobic, that non-citizens have to use special license plates so that the police force knows who they should pull over for traffic violations (which, in Azerbaijan, is a meaningless phrase, because any attempt to follow a traffic law will surely result in a near-death experience). Bribery is a way of life, and nobody is ashamed about it. Everyone pays off the police, because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. Greasing palms is the only way for business to get done. The infrastructure is effectively divided into three groups: ancient structures built in the oil boom of the early 20th century, depressive Soviet structures, and a few modern buildings built exclusively for the use of the lucrative oil companies.
Azerbaijan and their neighbors Armenia have been locked in conflict over the NKR region for at least the last century, including allegations of genocide. Baku has their own special ills referred to as “Baku-Belly” that is equally potent as the Indian version.
So, if you will pull out your Olympic-criteria scorecards:
Human Rights: Failure
City of the World: Failure (since the Silk Road Shut Down, anyways)
Government Transparency: Failure
Friendly to Foreigners: Failure
Safe Water: Failure
Demonstrated Ability to Host Large Scale Events: Failure
Demonstrated Ability to Build World Class Facilities: Failure
Now, this is not to say that Baku is the worst place in the world. The history of the city makes it one of the most fascinating in the World, and I encourage anybody who gets a chance to visit there to do so and take a qualified tour of the city. But in terms of hosting a large-scale event with 12,000 athletes and 100 times that many traveling to be a part of the Olympic spectacle, Baku shouldn’t even have been accepted as an applicant.
Similarly, a city like Rio de Janiero, which won the 2016 bid, is a city that, while huge in population, has a serious crime problem. On top of that, they were not even able to muster enough internal financial support to host their 2009 Swimming World Cup event. Rio received only the fifth-highest rating amongst the semi-finalists, and wouldn’t have even been a finalist save for Doha, Qatar’s plan to hold the games in October as a result of the extreme summer heat.
The only saving grace here for the IOC is that FIFA will absorb a good portion of the costs in preparing for Brazil to host the 2014 soccer World Cup.
Beijing, China, which hosted the 2008 Games, was widely regarded as a competitive success. But this was as much a result of heavy marketing, heavy spending, and suppression of dissenters as anything else. Athletes were hampered by the traffic and heavy pollution in the city, and there a shroud of the Tibetan situation hung over the whole Games.
Obviously, there are very few (if any) perfect cities, and it brings excitement to rotate the games to different locales. But as elite athletes, there are a few basic needs: mainly, the athletes need to be safe, they need to be welcomed by the local population, and they need to have access to healthy food and water. If a city can’t provide even these basic needs, they shouldn’t be in the running.
I understand why the IOC, Commonwealth, FINA, FIBA, etc. etc. choose these cities. They are usually on the lesser-developed continents (South America, Asia, Africa), and are cities with enormous populations (Baku has 2 million people, Rio 6 million, and Delhi 12 million). They are also centers for even larger (and usually even less-developed) populations. The marketing opportunities for the IGB’s, and their sponsors, are unbelievable.
Events like the Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games were designed to showcase the world’s best athletes in the world’s great cities. They have now turned into nothing more than a economic and political machine. We criticize our athletes for politicizing the games and for not participating due to the potential financial risks of an injury, but how can they help but do so when that is the example set for them?
This is not to say that only cities like New York, Tokyo, or London would make good host cities. Many smaller, and more underrated, cities, like Chicago, Damascus (if they relent on their Israeli travel restrictions), Durban, or Yokohama would also make fantastic destinations for major events.
FINA, for the most part, has nailed their World Championship host cities. Rome in 2009, and Barcelona in 2013. Shanghai (2011 host) is a more modern city than Beijing, and has significantly superior transportation infrastructure. They also have impressively low pollution for a city of that size-on par with a city like Los Angeles only at three times the population. They have also aggressively been adding green spaces and relocating industry since the 1990′s.
They got a break when Dubai pulled out of hosting, rather than limping their way to a sub-par event with little support from the citizenship. Dubai could certainly be a formidable host for another, more wide-spread event, like the Asian Games. Qatar would be a much better future option in the region, as they have already demonstrated the ability to host large scale events (the 2006 Asian Games). Doha has been a finalist for seemingly every large event that’s come up in the last few years, and it’s only a matter of time before they land a few of them.
The Commonwealth Games committee has done a significantly better job of selecting their 2014 host, Glasgow Scotland, but needs to be careful in 2018, where the two finalists bids are The Gold Coast, Australia, and Hambantota, Sri Lanka. The Gold Coast is a very well-educated, very well-educated, very beautiful city. Sri Lanka is only a year removed from a civil war, and will likely run into many of the same pitfalls that Delhi did.
Delhi already suffered a pull-out by many of the Commonwealth’s top athletes because of concerns over safety. If events like the Commonwealth Games want to remain legitimate events, they need to return to choosing host cities that can handle these events and where conditions will allow for elite, world-class performances.