Between Mirai Nagasu’s triple axel, Chloe Kim and Shaun White’s snowboarding halfpipe triumphs, the U.S. women’s hockey team’s historic gold medal, and absolutely everything about Canadian ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Pyeongchang Olympic Games will not soon be forgotten.
But, now that the medals have been awarded and the delightful K-pop infused closing ceremony has finished, it’s time to step back and look at the big picture. Could you call the Pyeongchang Games a success? Sure, if you want to. (It’s hard to consider any event that bestows upon us an Adam Rippon-Gus Kenworthy bromance a failure.)
But that doesn’t mean the legacy of these Olympics is going to be a positive one. Pyeongchang, its surrounding province, and many of the Olympic athletes that competed there, are soon to be forgotten by most of the world, and left on economically precarious footing. And, ultimately, the 2018 Winter Games did absolutely nothing to change the trajectory of the overall Olympic movement, which is facing an uncertain future.
So, while it was wonderful to see the legend of Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjorgen grow, and as much as I enjoy the fact that the United States is now a curling country, the lasting impression from Pyeongchang is more one of desperation than celebration.
Pyeongchang faces massive debt
Minus the norovirus outbreak, by all accounts Pyeongchang was a model Olympic host. But after the Paralympics next month finish, and all the athletes and tourists depart, the city will be left with a massive bill, useless venues, and happy memories from millions of new friends they will never see again.
According to the Associated Press, the problems the city faced before the games remain — the city is still poor, its population is still rapidly aging, and many business actually saw a decrease in tourism during the Olympics. Turns out heavy snows and rough winters still make it a not-so desirable tourist destination.
Now, the province is left with debt in the billions (which it has no clue how to repay), and the cost of maintaining the facilities the Olympics left behind could end up outweighing any income that could potentially come from tourism or hosting future events. That is not an equation for prosperity.
Many athletes will struggle after the games end
The economic fallout from hosting an Olympics is thoroughly scrutinized every two years, but one thing that isn’t talked about much is what happens to the athletes after the Games are over. Sascha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s figure skater to win a medal in the Olympics — a silver back in 2006 — wrote an OpEd in the New York Times about how hard it is as an elite athlete when your careers are over.
“The challenge of adjusting to post-Olympic life is something that I, like most Olympians, was poorly equipped to face.”
“The challenge of adjusting to post-Olympic life is something that I, like most Olympians, was poorly equipped to face. How do you deal with being a has-been at 21?” said Cohen, who retired at 25 when she failed to make the 2010 Olympic team. She said at first, retirement felt like a vacation. But soon she realized how unprepared she was for the real world.
“Like many Olympians, I was home-schooled and received a subpar education. I didn’t go to college until I was 26,” Cohen said. “I hadn’t attended school since the seventh grade, and getting up to speed academically after all that time away was daunting. When I did my first summer internship I was 29; the other interns were a decade younger.”
This experience is hardly unique to Cohen. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, has talked in detail about the deep depression he suffered after finishing his Olympic career. And most Olympians aren’t nearly as decorated as Phelps and Cohen, and haven’t been peppered with endorsements.
Sasha Cohen of the United States wins the silver medal in the women’s Free Skating program of figure skating during Day 13 of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Thankfully, the Olympics did away with amateurism, so athletes can make money from sponsors and from their national federations. But most of that money is tied directly to performance (such as medal bonuses), so if an athlete has one off competition in the Olympics, they might have to wait another four years for a chance to make significant money again.
While the governing organizations such as the IOC and the USOC — not to mention broadcasters such as NBC — are raking in millions upon millions, the truth is, most Olympic athletes are just scraping by. And after the Olympics are over, and the attention of the world moves onto the next big sporting event, they’re left with very little guidance about what happens next.
The Olympics are struggling to find future suitors
The Pyeongchang Games are over, but the Olympics will remain in Asia for the next four years; the next Summer Games are in Tokyo in 2020, and the next Winter Games are in Beijing in 2022.
Human Rights Watch is already focused in on Beijing, due to the heinous human rights abuses that went down before the 2008 Games in the same city. There is not much reason to hope that things will be better this time around; the human rights situation in China has only gotten worse over the last decade.
It’s becoming more and more difficult each passing year for the IOC to find hosts for the Olympics. Citizens aren’t as easily manipulated by infrastructure plans and empty promises of an economic boost. While the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games have already been awarded, to Paris and Los Angeles respectively, anti-Olympics activists in L.A. are still working to get that bid overturned.
And the IOC is still struggling to find a host city for the 2026 Winter Olympics. It’s no wonder that cities aren’t scrambling to spend upwards of $100 million just to bid on a chance to host the Olympics, like Chicago did back in 2010. Even presumably successful Olympics have left behind scars of debt and displacement — take London for instance, where the Olympic Park built for the 2012 Games is reportedly expected to lose $45 million annually for the next four years.
The Olympics are a wonderful thing, but unfortunately, the IOC is a corrupt conglomerate that shows no sign of growing a heart any time soon. Drastic reform is the only responsible way forward. There has to be a way to hold the Olympics without leaving countries reeling with debt when the games go away, while allowing the athletes that make this all possible to be supported, during and after their Olympic careers.
That’s my Olympic dream, and it wasn’t extinguished on Sunday along with the Olympic torch in Pyeongchang.