Documentary maker: Hosting Olympics is not worth it for cities

Haruna Honcoop

Olympic Halftime by Czech-Japanese director Haruna Honcoop is one of the most anticipated works at this year’s Ji.hlava documentary film festival. It highlights “white elephant” venues often left behind after Olympics – and the debts that host cities can be saddled with for decades. I spoke to the documentarian ahead of the film’s world premiere on Wednesday.

Olympic Halftime / Trailer / 27th Ji.hlava IDFF

“When I was in China in 2018 I noticed all the preparation works for the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022, which were the first Chinese Winter Olympics.

“What struck me were the propaganda posters, red posters, put up by the Chinese government promoting the Olympics in quite an interesting way – very nationalistic.

“And I met with a guy, an urbex photographer who has been documenting various urban ruins in China. And this guy, Chiang, took me to various abandoned Olympic venues, which were abandoned after the 2008 Summer Games. And that was where the story started.”

As you say, you followed preparations for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, as well for Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024. How do those different cities handle preparing for the Olympics differently?

“In Tokyo, for example, they had an excellent Olympic stadium that was demolished for the 2020 Olympics, because it was too small, the Japanese government said.

“But as we all know now, they built a new stadium, designed by the excellent Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, but the stadium remained empty during the Olympics, because of Covid. So that’s kind of the absurdity of the Japanese case.

“In France there were two Olympics before and they are coming to Paris 100 years later and the French Olympic Committee promised that the games would be sustainable. But again they are building an all-new Olympic village and all new temporary buildings – around the Seine and in front of the Eiffel Tower and a new media centre – so it’s not actually 100 percent true that they are recycling old venues.

“In the case of China, they had to build all new Olympic venues in the mountains, from scratch. They constructed those structures in dry mountains, where it hardly ever snows, so again this is a very absurd moment of the Olympics, when the Chinese Olympic Committee had to produce artificial snow.

“And in fact the effect of the Olympics was quite disastrous for nature, and also for the local inhabitants.”

You talk in the film about white elephants, these stadiums that are left over after the Olympics and often unused, and also the economic costs that some cities have incurred and maybe have suffered from for decades. Generally speaking, is it worth any city bidding for and hosting the Olympics?

Photo: Paris 2024

“In my opinion, it’s not worth it. Because as we see from all the cases already from the ‘70s that the cities that host the Games end up in debt. That’s a fact.

“The trend nowadays is that fewer and fewer cities are bidding for the Olympics, especially the Winter Olympics, which are even more complicated in terms of organisation.

“Of course we could think of a kind of system of rotating cities that would host the Games again after a while. But again this is not very feasible, because if after 20 years the Olympics came to that city it would need repairs and renovations again. So it’s not very realistic that this could be a model.

“There are voices of various experts and locals who don’t wish to have Olympics at all, and I also captured this group of people in the film. I talked to them and they told me the reasons why there should be no more Olympics.”