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A New Look for an Ancient Tradition

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

The Greeks had it right in 776 B.C. when they chose a scenic plain in the Peloponnese peninsula some 270 miles below Athens. There they built a complex of arenas and temple that brought rival city-states together for athletic competitions that would recur for centuries. Today, the well-kept ruins are a U.N. World Heritage Site covering 250 acres within a 134,000-acre buffer ring.

That’s enough room to welcome a permanent Summer Olympics complex.

And not a century too soon. Tokyo, like other host countries, was a frenzied, frazzled scene of paving, painting and plastering right up to the minute the torch was lit on opening night. Example: hastily built 26-mile marathon runway with a special heat-reflecting coating. But it didn’t beat the heat, and the marathon was moved to a cooler clime at the last minute.

The result of all this hyperactivity over the years has been:

Horrific cost overruns. Japan budgeted $7.4 billion and now expects the tab to exceed $20 billion. One postmortem study contends that since 1992, the cost overrun for all Olympic complexes averaged around 50% - not including new roads and transport systems.

Revenue shortfalls. Example: after Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer games, it took 30 years to pay off the debt incurred when costs exceeded ticket and tourist revenue by 720%. Athens. (Summer, 2004) came up so short that it tipped the economy into a six-year recession.

“Orphaned” buildings. In Sarajevo (Winter, 1980) the abandoned bobsled track is an eyesore of graffiti and bullet holes. In Beijing (Summer 2008) many of the sports venues already stand neglected and empty.

Question: why is it that state fair grounds are invariably in a permanent location?

With its own Olympic ghost town in Athens, the Greek government might be reluctant to spearhead a new, permanent complex. But it’s a good bet that ancient Olympia would gain strong financial support from the throughout the world. One can imagine a special “zone” managed by the International Olympic Committee. TV networks might combine to build a media center. Maybe the NBA would build a basketball arena. Derek Boosey, a former Olympian, envisions naming a “host country” that would sponsor themed decorations and events during a given set of games.

Might all this overwhelm the heritage site and the nearby town of Olympia (pop. 13,000)? Olympia would quickly run out of rooms, to be sure, but 28 miles down an excellent superhighway (I’ve driven it) is the cruise ship port of Katakolon. I can see a fleet of luxury liners serving as floating hotels for athletes and workers. Here today, gone tomorrow.

There are many more ways to make this boat float, so to speak, because the concept of a permanent Olympic venue is embedded firmly in solid ground.

Nearly thirty centuries of it.

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