Hosting Olympics has become symbol of international approval

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October 2, 2009

12:55 AM

In this week’s column I will not discuss the all-important parking space changes, nor will I attempt to add to the ever-growing literature concerning the three-person rule. Today’s topic is the most important event of the week you probably don’t care about. The International Olympic Committee will meet this Friday to announce the city that is to host the 2016 Summer Games.

While this may not seem extremely important to anyone besides athletes and residents of the competing cities, the decision is portentous. It is above all a political decision which may tell us something about international affairs. Where the Olympic Games will be held is not a decision people take lightly. Sites go through an extensive selection process until all but a few semi-finalists remain — this year Madrid, Tokyo, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro.

While there are obvious benefits for a city hosting the Olympics, it is not clear that they exceed the costs of such an event. The boost in tourism a city receives is overshadowed by the financial cost of new infrastructure to accommodate the event and the problems posed by hosting thousands of guests. The real motivation for cities or nations to host the Olympics is the prestige and legitimacy conferred upon them by such an event.

The IOC is a truly international organization containing members from almost every country. As such, its decisions carry a certain weight and international legitimacy. Countries selected to host the Olympics are proported to be the most powerful, wealthy and culturally developed nations of the world. Being chosen to host the Olympics is considered by many to be an invitation to the exclusive family of influential decision makers.

This is exactly how China viewed the 2008 Beijing Games; it was an affirmation of China’s ascension to the ranks of great powers. I had the privilege of studying abroad in Beijing during the time, and I can attest to the pride with which ordinary Chinese citizens viewed the games. Even though Beijing traffic was at a standstill throughout the whole event, you rarely heard any complaint from the residents. They were willing to put up with the inconvenience because they realized how important the Olympics were to their country.
Brazil is in a similar situation this year. As one of the world’s fastest-growing and largest economies, it no doubt views the Olympics as proof that they are now a part of the family of great nations. Thus, the vast majority of Rio de Janeirians proudly support of their city’s bid.

The same cannot be said of the other front-running contender. In Chicago, the Olympic bid is a divisive issue. Less than half the city wants Chicago to host the Olympics. There have even been some clashes between Olympic protest groups, such as the cleverly named Chicagoans for Rio, and police in the past weeks.

Perhaps the reluctance to deal with the hassle of the games stems from the fact that the United States has nothing to prove. We are still at the head of the international community and do not need a reaffirmation of our prominence.

Be that as it may, there is still an important component in Chicago’s bid for the games that should not be overlooked. As President Barack Obama’s adoptive home city, Chicago and the president are indelibly linked. Obama is championing the bid in Copenhagen along with his wife. It is easy to see how the Olympic decision can be perceived — or perhaps misperceived — as an international referendum on the man.

An international show of goodwill would definitely go a long way to show that he has indeed lived up to his promise to repair this country’s image around the world, but a snub might embarrass him.

By the time you are reading this column the city that will host the 2016 Olympics will most likely have already been decided upon. Keep in mind that the decision, while it may seem unimportant, has significant meaning to nations and individuals — particularly those involved in the choosing — and should be seen as an important gesture.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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