First Munich, then Boston and now Hamburg: Put it to a vote, and residents seem to reject Olympic bids. Why? Reasons abound – from unpredictable costs and safety concerns through to world sport’s waning credibility.
Selling the Olympic dream to the public is turning into such a challenge that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should probably consider a medals system for cities that submit their bids. Citizens of Munich, Krakow in Poland and St. Moritz/Davos in Switzerland all rejected the 2022 Winter Games at referendum – leaving 2008 hosts Beijing to narrowly beat Kazakhstan’s Almaty to the honor in a two-horse race.
Seeing the cost-related writing on the wall, the US Olympic Committee pulled the plug on Boston’s 2024 bid before a 2016 referendum could be held, sending Los Angeles in to bat instead.
The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) tried to play it safe, too. It made no bones about its reason for picking Hamburg over the capital, Berlin: Opinion polls showed higher levels of public support – and, therefore, a greater chance of it clearing a local vote. Still, 64 percent support in March gave way to a narrow defeat by November; no wonder the other four hopefuls chose not to take their candidacy to a public ballot.
DOSB President Alfons Hörmann lamented Sunday’s result, not least on behalf of his athletes, saying German Olympians and Paralympians would now have to wait for perhaps “a generation” to compete on home soil. “Germany and the Olympic ideal don’t seem to fit together at the moment,” Hörmann said.
Failure came despite support from the local government, media, athletes, celebrities and the city’s Bundesliga football club, HSV. Political opponents like the left-wing opposition Die Linke and the Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany did not seem like insurmountable hurdles – but perhaps alarm bells should have sounded when the cult second-division football club St. Pauli joined the “NOlympia” ranks. In some senses, St. Pauli’s pull rivals even Bayern Munich’s within Germany.
Even the Hamburg office of the BdSt federal taxpayer lobby – often the first organization to cry “boondoggle” and demand a fresh look at the figures when it comes to state spending – had issued cautious support for the Olympic project, and its projected 7.4 billion-euro ($7.84 billion) budget.
“The financial concept put forward for Hamburg was coherent, in our eyes, and we checked it thoroughly,” Christoph Metzner, of BdSt Hamburg, told DW. “From our point of view, therefore, nothing spoke against the plan. But this is the result now in Hamburg – hardly anybody reckoned with it, and yet we have to accept it.”
The project’s planners claimed to be operating on worst-case-scenario predictions, aiming to prevent the classic Olympic process: an overambitious tender (so as not to scare away the public), followed by a reassessment to a much higher total cost once the die is cast.
“We do think that Hamburg would have profited from the games in the long term,” Metzner said. “You have to admit that Hamburg the city can’t really compare with London, Paris, New York – it’s not well-known enough internationally. But the Olympics in particular could have thrown a spotlight on Hamburg: It would have been a global advertisement for the city.” He also drew attention to planned new developments around the Olympic Village, infrastructure projects that will now be “difficult to implement without the games.”
Interviewed by ARD television soon after the “no” vote on Sunday evening, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also expressed regret, saying the federal government had stood ready to pay its share: “We would have done everything we could financially. The German government would have supported Hamburg, if not to quite the extent that Hamburg had hoped.”
Germany’s recent record on major public or private infrastructure investments has been patchy at best. The planned new primary airport for the capital, Berlin Brandenburg Airport – under construction since 2006 and once scheduled to open in 2010 – is now set for launch in the last quarter of 2017. The previously publicly owned Nürburgring racetrack is now in private hands, sold off at a cut price after a major state-funded refurbishment rendered it bankrupt. In the harbor city of Hamburg itself, where the games were planned, the under-construction Elbe Philarmonic Hall – once due for completion in 2010 – is now set to open in 2017, almost a decade after building began.
Question of priorities
The IOC acknowledged that Germany’s narrow vote “does not come as a complete surprise” given recent developments.
The Hamburg bid’s CEO, Nikolas Hill, said a string of unrelated events – including the attacks in Paris earlier this month, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and the scandals besetting world sports – contributed to the change in public opinion.
The BdSt’s Metzner sees the issue similarly: “We believe that lots of people were thinking, ‘Better do something different with the money – we have other problems besides hosting a three-week sports festival that could cost 11.2 billion euros.'”
In sports news, also, the timing could scarcely have been worse. Hamburg voted on the games with FIFA in leadership turmoil, amid allegations of bribery in Germany’s own World Cup 2006 bid, weeks after Russian athletics was accused of systematic doping, and days after International Association of Athletics Federations President Sebastian Coe quit his job with sports brand Nike following allegations of conflicted interests.
IOC President Thomas Bach, currently scrambling to ensure that Russian athletes can go to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, has now seen two Olympic bids from his home country fail to win even local support, let alone the IOC’s. Judging by the chastened domestic reaction to a second defeat in two years, Bach may never get to crow “third time lucky!” But it’s his ongoing reform plans, designed to make the modern games more affordable and more accessible, that could one day tip the scales.