The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, opening Aug. 5, haven’t enjoyed a smooth rollout. Poor organization, polluted waters, a dysfunctional Brazilian government and an absence of some high-profile athletes due to fears of the Zika virus have combined to provide less than auspicious auguries for the first South American Olympics.
"Rio had been the biggest challenge we have ever faced," Gerald Heiberg of Norway, a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee, told The Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps legendary athletic performances in a stunning natural setting will help elevate Rio to the pantheon of glorious Games such as Rome 1960 and Barcelona 1992. If not, they have a spot waiting on another list, a rogue gallery of cities that had no business serving as an Olympic host.
In chronological order here are those cities that either hurt the Olympic movement or did lasting damage to the host municipalities.
1904 St. Louis Olympics
The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis was a huge success if for no other reason than it introduced the ice cream cone. But the ’04 St. Louis Olympics were a disaster, nearly destroying the modern Games less than a decade after they had been reborn.
The International Olympic Committee originally awarded the 1904 Games to Chicago, no doubt taking note of the city’s spectacularly successful 1893 World’s Fair, but St. Louis city fathers were not happy. With plans for the Louisiana Purchase Expedition already underway, St. Louis threatened to hold an international sports festival in direct competition with the Chicago Olympics. President Theodore Roosevelt served as referee and recommended the IOC pick St. Louis over Chicago, which it did.
It was not one of Roosevelt’s wiser decisions.
Early 20th century transportation limitations made St. Louis a difficult destination for much of the world, and only 12 nations and fewer than 630 competitors showed up for the Olympics. The St. Louis Fair completely overshadowed the St. Louis Olympics, which was stretched between July 1 and Nov. 23. Many spectators didn’t know if they were attending Olympic events or the fair.
The slapdash nature of the Games was summed up by the marathon, held on a 90-degree late August day. Only 14 of 32 runners finished, with the winner originally thought to be Fred Lorz of New York. There was one problem: He had stopped running after nine miles and hitched a ride in a car.
When the car broke down, Lorz felt better and jogged into the stadium well ahead of his competitors. He was about to accept the gold medal, when it was learned Thomas Hicks, another American, was the real winner. Hicks was no angel, having received shots of strychnine and brandy from his trainers to keep from collapsing.
The Olympics, teetering on the edge of international insignificance, needed their own shot. It came from the 1906 “Intermediary” Games, held in the 1896 Olympics city of Athens. Twenty nations featuring nearly 850 athletes helped restore the idea of an international athletics festival, and the 1908 London Olympics were a major improvement over the catastrophe in St. Louis.
1936 Berlin Olympics
Two Olympic Games have been held in Germany. History judges the 1936 Berlin Olympics a success despite the ominous presence of Adolf Hitler and the ever-present Brown Shirts of the Nazi Party. Jesse Owens’s historic four-gold medal helped put the Fuhrer in his place.
The 1972 Munich Games marked the Olympic movement’s worst tragedy as 11 Israeli athletes died at the hands of Palestinian terrorists and a botched police rescue mission. In addition, there were numerous examples of dubious officiating, most notably the final seconds of the championship basketball game where the Soviet Union was given three attempts to beat the United States—which it ultimately did.
Yet there was nothing inherently wrong with the IOC’s decision to award the 1972 Olympics to Munich over Madrid, Montreal and Detroit. The IOC’s refusal to remove the 1936 Games from Berlin is another matter.
Yes, the IOC originally picked Berlin over Barcelona in 1931 when Germany was still a republic. However, once the Nazis and Hitler came to power in 1933, it had become strikingly clear that their concepts of Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism presented an affront to the Olympic ideals of world brotherhood through sports.
The decision by IOC officials, most notably U.S. Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, to keep the Games in Berlin, started an unfortunate Olympic tradition of playing ball with dictators. The awarding of the 1980 Olympic Games to Moscow and the 2008 Summer Games and ’22 Winter Games to Beijing, under the guise of opening dictatorships to the humanistic ideals of the Olympic movement, has yielded little in terms of democratic reforms and human rights improvements.
1968 Mexico City Olympics
The awarding of the 1968 Games to Mexico City may be the most mystifying decision in Olympic history.
Mexico City sits nearly 7,400 feet above sea level where the air provides one-third less oxygen than at sea level. Any event that involves endurance will severely handicap athletes not raised at altitude. Yet the IOC assured critics that the mile-and-a-half high environment would have minimal effect when it chose Mexico City over Detroit, Lyon, France, and Buenos Aires.
They were wrong.
In no competition were the effects of high altitude more evident than track and field, because thin air means less resistance for sprinters and jumpers. This provided the perfect, ahem, atmosphere for world record performances in the men’s 100, 200 and 400 meters, 400m hurdles, 4x100 and 4x400 relays and the triple jump, plus the women’s 100 and 200 meters and 4x100 relay. Most spectacularly, Bob Beamon broke the world long jump record by soaring 29' 2 1/2", nearly two feet beyond the old mark of 27' 4 3/4". Beamon’s mark stood for 23 years.
Distance events were another matter as winning times in races longer than 1,500 meters were the slowest in decades. Altitude-trained African runners won the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the marathon (there were no women’s races longer than 800 meters).
Mexico City’s altitude likely cost American record holder Jim Ryun a gold medal in the 1,500. He finished second behind Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino, a runner Ryun always had beaten at sea level. The same was true for George Young in the steeplechase. The veteran U.S. runner finished third, less than a second behind Kenyans Amos Biwott and Ben Kogo. Running at sea level, Biwott never won another major international competition and finished sixth in the steeplechase at the 1972 Munich Games.
Australia’s Ron Clarke, the world-record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the time, didn’t even medal, finishing fifth and sixth respectively in the two races. He collapsed unconscious at the end of the 10,000 as his coach cursed Olympic officials.
But the IOC did learn from its Mexico mistake. The Olympic Games have never returned to a high-altitude city, while the IAAF World Championships, which started in 1983, are always held close to sea level.
1976 Montreal Olympics; 2004 Athens Olympics
Other than a boycott by 22 African nations of the 1976 Games, these two Olympics did not suffer any overt athletic or political disasters. Finances were another story as both cities sustained severe economic damage after hosting.
The Montreal Games bequeathed their city a debt of nearly one billion Canadian dollars that took 30 years to pay off. The Olympic Stadium, later used by baseball’s Montreal Expos, saw its nickname change from “The Big O” to “The Big Owe.”
Canada ultimately played host to two successful—and financially solvent—Winter Olympics: Calgary in 1988 and Vancouver in 2010. However, it is more likely the IOC will award an Olympics to Vietnam than stage another one in Greece. The 2004 Athens Olympics are estimated to have lost as much as 15 billion U.S. dollars and helped trigger the Greek debt crisis that burdened much of Europe. Many of the Athens Olympic venues, barely used since 2004, sit in disrepair, empty of competitions and of spectators.
Athens, however, may have served as the canary in the coalmine for smaller nations wishing to host an Olympics, particularly the ultra-expensive Summer Games. The lesson: Bid at your own risk.
It seems the only way one-time smaller host nations such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland can hold another Summer Olympics is if the IOC follows the FIFA model and allows co-hosts as Japan and South Korea did with the 2002 World Cup.
1996 Atlanta Olympics
The favorite for the Centennial Games of the modern Olympics was Athens, the original host in 1896. Indeed, the Greek capital led IOC voting after two rounds. However, many voters had what proved to be well-founded concerns about Athens’ infrastructure, and Atlanta pulled into a tie in the third round before winning in the fifth round.
Two questions were raised when the IOC awarded the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta—first, with Los Angeles hosting the Olympics only 12 years earlier, why would the IOC return to the U.S. so soon? As a rule, the committee likes to distribute the Games around the world.
So why Atlanta? If the IOC sought an alternative, certainly Melbourne, the successful host of the 1956 Olympics, and Toronto, an internationally diverse city, offered suitable alternatives. It has long been suspected, however, that Atlanta business leaders may have provided financial inducements to pliant IOC voters, as would happen with the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bid scandal.
Indeed, Greek actress Melina Mercouri, one of the leaders of the Athens delegation, groused that the IOC had bowed to U.S. business interests, concluding “Coca-Cola won over the Parthenon.”
Second, why were the Atlanta Games scheduled in the heat of the Georgia summer (July 19–Aug. 4) and not later in the calendar? The average July high temperature in Atlanta is close to 90 degrees, while September averages a more comfortable 82. The first weekend of the 1996 Games was brutal with temperatures soaring close to 100.
Weather, of course, was the least of Atlanta’s troubles. Poor transportation planning left Olympic spectators on buses for hours as out-of-town drivers tried to navigate their way around Atlanta’s always-challenging highway system. Midway through the Games a bomb set by domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing two people and wounding more than 100.
The midsummer date represented economic pragmatism. With most local colleges either out for the summer or on reduced schedules, Atlanta organizers could make use of their dormitories and athletic facilities. Georgia Tech’s midtown campus became the unofficial Olympic Village, with 16,000 athletes and trainers on campus, according to the Boston Globe. Georgia Tech also helped fund the Olympic aquatics center.
Sports facilities at Georgia State, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College and Clark University also were utilized. A September starting date, with thousands of students back on campus, would have required Atlanta Olympic officials to build dorms and facilities elsewhere—most likely without the financial support of local colleges.
Although some Olympic facilities, such as the Georgia Tech aquatics center remain in use, others are long gone. At Stone Mountain Park, the tennis center was abandoned and the outdoor cycling velodrome was sold to Disney and moved.
The Olympic Stadium, site of Muhammad Ali’s emotional Olympic flame-lighting ceremony and Michael Johnson’s double in the 200 and 400 meters, was converted into a baseball park for the Atlanta Braves and renamed Turner Field. But even this facility is on borrowed time. The Braves will move to a new suburban stadium in 2017 with Turner Field’s future uncertain. It could be demolished after only two decades or serve as a football stadium for Georgia State.
As for the heat, well, most Olympic officials enjoy the competitions in the comfort of air-conditioned suites. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July 24–Aug. 9, the city’s hottest time of the year. This week’s temperatures are expected to range between the high 80s and low 90s.
Meanwhile, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in the cool of October. Some Olympic lessons remain to be learned.