Are Olympics too big to succeed?


Even if the Olympics are your favorite sporting event, bar none, a nagging thought has been hard to tamp down in the past few days amid the steady thrum of downbeat news swirling around the Winter Games which begin Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia.

Are we quickly getting to the point where the Olympics are too big not to fail?

It's painful to even ask the question. Olympic athletes' performances are still reliably breathtaking. And the idealism the Games spark has sometimes quite literally changed the world.

And yet, three things happened in just the past week that made the too-big-not-to-fail idea a fair question to ponder even if you're not a cynic or an alarmist.

Stockholm, one of the six finalists competing for the 2022 Winter Games, abruptly canceled its bid rather than risk staggering cost overruns and being stuck with white elephant facilities -- continuing a trend of withdrawals that even some members of the notoriously head-in-the-sand International Olympic Committee admit is a concern.

To make matters worse, Stockholm's unexpected announcement came amid more reports about the ratcheted-up security concerns besetting the Sochi Games because of terrorist threats from Islamist insurgents, many of them based in the Dagestan region a few hundred miles to the south of Sochi -- a worry that would not seem highly unusual in a post-9/11, post-Munich Games world if a handful of U.S. lawmakers hadn't also made the rounds on the Sunday morning news talk shows last weekend and pointedly said they're concerned that visitors to Russia won't be safe during the Games.

Dagestan has become the focal point of the insurgency as two separatist wars rage on in neighboring Chechnya.

''I would not go [to Sochi], and I don't think I would send my family,'' Sen. Angus King of Maine said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

''We don't seem to be getting all of the information we need to protect our athletes in the Games,'' said Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who appeared on the same CNN show as well as on CBS's "Face the Nation."

This is sadly ironic for a ton of reasons -- including the fact that wars were actually suspended in Greece during the staging of the ancient Olympic Games.

What made the portrait of the roiling challenges facing Sochi feel worse was King and Rogers aired their concerns one day before Russian officials said they had foiled one bombing plot and engaged in a shootout that killed Eldar Magatov, a man described as a senior Islamist militant and a suspect in numerous attacks on Russian targets. The U.S. officials spoke two days before word came that there's an amped-up search now on in Sochi for up to three women from Dagestan whom the Russian authorities suspect could be planning a suicide bombing like the twin attacks in Volgograd that killed 34 people in December. 

Those blasts followed Chechen warlord Doku Umarov's call to launch attacks on the Olympics, a threat that was repeated by the two purported suicide bombers in a video that was released this Monday promising more blood would be spilled if the Games go on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a lot of personal and political prestige riding on the success of these Games, and he has voiced the safety assurances you'd expect him to spout.

But even someone less invested than Putin could accurately say, look, there were worries about terrorism at other Games before and little trouble materialized. Since Munich, the most notable exception was the pipe bomb that Eric Robert Rudolph exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Atlanta Games. That killed two people, injured 111 and created yet another instance where other nations can tell the U.S. take care of your own house first.

So then why does the confluence of events bedeviling Sochi still make these Games feel different?

The gargantuan cost and trend of bidders bailing out, for starters.

When Russia won its bid in 2007, officials said the Sochi Winter Games would cost $12 billion.

The actual figure is now more likely to surpass a staggering $51 billion.

A lot of the cost spiral in Russia is being blamed on corruption.

But whatever the reason, Sochi is easily the most expensive Games ever, surpassing the roughly $40 billion price tag of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

And Russia is very likely to spend a whopping $3 billion on security alone -- triple what London organizers did to protect the far larger Summer Games just two years ago.

Have we reached (or perhaps already surpassed) the point of absurdity when we see that to protect the athletes and spectators in Sochi, Putin has ordered up a staggering 60,000-person security force on the ground -- 37,000 police officers from around the country, and another 23,000 of them members of the Ministry for Civil Protection? That doesn't even count the numerous soldiers, border patrol agents and an unknown number of intelligence agents who are also in place. And the other measures Russian officials are taking: the 1,400-plus video cameras that have been installed around the city; the national postal service's edict that all mail and packages to the Krasnodar region where Sochi is located will be opened between Jan. 1 through the end of March; the edict that electronic mail will also be monitored.

All that still hasn't reassured the United States, which plans to station ships nearby in the Black Sea, where Russian submarines are already patrolling. The ships could be part of contingency plans to evacuate American citizens if needed.

Visitors to Sochi must also register if they plan to stay more than three days. Ticket holders at events will receive special spectator passes that automatically transmit their personal data to the security forces. They are very likely to notice drones in the sky. On and on it goes …

Where will it stop?

"These are valid questions to be asking," says NYU associate professor Lee Igel, a co-director of New York University's Sports and Society program. "If you look, history suggests any policy or program that's created by human beings typically has a shelf life to it …So if you go back and think about 1984 Los Angeles Games as a turning point for economics of the Olympics -- that's when it really became a business, right? When Peter Ueberroth came in, and revised the thinking, and had a Games that actually made money. Well, that was 30 years ago. And now I'm looking at that and going, 'OK … What if what worked in '84 from a policy and programmatic perspective doesn't work anymore?'… And there is something to it."

Denver looked like a cranky outlier in 1972 when Colorado voters rejected a now quaint-sounding $5 million bond issue to help pay for the 1976 Games, and the IOC moved them to Innsbruck, Austria, instead. But now look: Stockholm's withdrawal follows the Italian government's cancelling of Rome's bid for the 2020 Olympics two years ago over financial fears. Last year, voters in St Moritz, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany, also killed proposed bids for the 2022 Games because of concerns about the cost and environmental impact.

Even some leading members of the IOC admit the current trends are not sustainable.

Gian-Franco Kasper, a longtime IOC member from Switzerland as well as the head of the International Ski Federation, has said he believes the Olympic brand is being damaged and something needs to be done.

"Those costs in Sochi are enormous and a bad example for future candidates -- most nations cannot afford it," the 69-year-old Kasper recently told Reuters. "Switzerland, France could never afford such amounts. Particularly for Winter Games."

IOC President Thomas Bach, who succeeded Jacques Rogge in September, agrees more attention must be paid.

But Beijing's willingness to stay in the bidding for the 2022 Winter Games even as Stockholm bails and the Sochi organizers struggle shows a certain what-me-worry? logic may always prevail nonetheless.

Some countries will always ignore the risks and warning signs and bid on the Olympics because of political reasons or hopes of sparking a national revival or making the world view them as a bigger player on the global stage. They'll turn a blind eye to how facilities in Athens now lie abandoned and decaying. Or that even China, a nation of an estimated 1.35 billion people, can nonetheless find no use for the cycling venue that was used at the Beijing Games. It now sits empty and padlocked.

"Most economists agree with me that in the long run, staging the Olympics are not helpful [to the home cities]," says Arthur Fleisher, a professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "Part of the problem is local, state and national level, they don't care what the data seems to say. They just get caught up in the feel-good aspect of chasing these things."

As the bid pullouts of Stockholm, St. Moritz, Rome and Munich suggest, it's getting harder and harder for more would-be Olympic hosts to mimic Sochi's leap of faith and reconcile wanting the Games.

"So there is some sanity -- a little bit of sanity," Fleisher says.

Ironic, right? The Olympics being saved by the fear of failure rather than their long-celebrated ethos of no dream ever being too big.