How to Avoid the Next Sochi

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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Surprise! The Sochi Olympics are going to be the most expensive in history, at a price of more than $50 billion.

Turns out it costs a lot of money to transform a one-lane town on the Black Sea into the host of the world's largest winter sports event, especially in light of the coincidence that two of the biggest contractors, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, are childhood friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So what did all of that money buy? One-half of an Olympic Village, apparently. At this point, the Sochi Games will be judged a success if they're free of suicide bombers and the Iceberg Skating Palace doesn't collapse.

Sochi may be an extreme case, but the general pattern is familiar: Host country wins bid for games, then goes way over budget -- in this case, $39 billion over -- preparing for them, all the time insisting that the money is financing vital infrastructure projects. (Like, say, a new mountain road to a new ski resort.) Once the games are over and everyone goes home, the host country is left with a lot of debt and underused stadiums and hotels. (Not to mention displaced citizens when the games are held in densely populated areas.)

A simple solution is at hand: Designate permanent sites for both the Summer and Winter Games.

This would prevent countries from going on self-destructive Olympic spending sprees. (Montreal spent 30 years paying off its $1.6 billion debt from the 1976 games.) It would have attendant benefits, too: No more Olympics next to war zones, for instance. It may not be possible to divorce politics from the Olympics altogether -- if the games were held in the U.S. this year, international civil rights advocates would probably be protesting the NSA -- but you could at least mitigate the effects, maybe by awarding the Winter Games to neutral (and rich) Switzerland?

Greece would be an obvious candidate for the Summer Games, given that it hosted the first Olympics, in 1896. On the other hand, it also spent 5 percent of its gross domestic product on the 2004 Games, which played no small role in the country's subsequent financial disaster. Also, it never managed to get the roof built over the Olympic swimming pool, which left backstrokers effectively blinded by the sun. OK, forget Greece.

One public policy professor has proposed a new Olympics Island, an interesting thought. We also shouldn't forget Germany, which managed at least to break even with the 2006 World Cup, then used the new stadiums it had built to revive its national soccer league, the Bundesliga. (The World Cup needs a permanent home, too, but we'll leave that argument for another day.) There are plenty of good options, and certainly not all of them are in Europe. The point is to stop the mega-bidding and reckless bender-spending, and maybe while we're at it, ensure that the events themselves are held in well-constructed facilities in safe and at least relatively open countries. In other words, the point is to avoid the next Sochi.

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