It might seem puzzling that Asia is getting three Olympics in a row. South Korea has the 2018 Winter Games, Japan has the 2020 Summer Games and China has the 2022 Winter Games. Shouldn’t the International Olympic Committee spread the wealth a bit more?
It’s not that simple, because the selection of Olympics host cities is a complicated interplay between the political and economic environments of the world when it plays out. This run of Olympics is happening in Asia largely because of the financial crisis in 2008.
The bidding for the 2018 games began in the summer of 2009. Back then, you may recall, the world was just beginning to shake off an economic crisis. While stock markets were recovering, the unemployment rate in the US continued to climb and was approaching 10 percent, and a sovereign debt crisis was still destabilizing Europe. This was not the best environment for politicians in democratically governed countries to submit bids to host an expensive global spectacle.
Three cities bid to host the 2018 games: PyeongChang in South Korea, Munich in Germany and Annecy in France. Both of the European bids came from Europe’s core rather than the peripheral countries that had so many problems with their sovereign debt in 2010 and 2011, as the bid process was ongoing. Ultimately, PyeongChang was chosen to host.
Just as the 2018 selection process occurred in the aftershocks of an economic crisis, the 2020 process began during the era of austerity that followed. The final shortlist was Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul. Perhaps because of ongoing economic problems in Spain, and political instability in Turkey, Tokyo represented the safest bet.
Then there’s 2022: the Olympics nobody wanted. The bid process began in 2013 at a time when economies had stabilized, but it still didn’t feel like a robust expansion in many countries. Governments had yet to emerge from a cycle of austerity. By late 2014, only two bids remained to host the 2022 games -- Almaty, Kazahkstan, and Beijing, China. When your choices are China or a country with an economy smaller than Iraq’s or Algeria’s, you pick China.
The good news is that the economic and political environments have recovered enough to get Western countries interested in hosting the Olympics again. Paris, chosen to host the 2024 Summer Games, and Los Angeles, host of the 2028 Summer Games, are both global cities that have hosted the Olympics before. While it’s still early in the bidding process for the 2026 Winter Games, expect rationality to prevail there as well.
For too long, being chosen to host the Olympics left cities with a legacy of debt and vacant, decaying venue sites. It’s no wonder cities have become reluctant to take on the burden of hosting. If a reformed, chastened International Olympics Committee can pull off successive Olympic Games without repeating the boondoggles, it’ll go a long way toward restoring trust.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.