With serious concerns over Beijing’s smoggy skies, human rights records and oppressive policies regarding free speech and Internet access, is it time to bring the Olympics to an environmentally clean, politically benign city? Like say, Reykjavík?
While the idea may seem absurd at face value, Icelandic political representatives believe such an event could be potentially feasible if a spirited campaign for it would ever get underway. Other international cities with half the resources as Iceland are considering bids, including the longest of long shots, USA’s Birmingham, Alabama (!).
Additionally, the benefits that such an event would provide to the nation would be more than worth the cost. The UK is expecting a £2.1 billion boost in tourism from London hosting the games in 2012. With money like that and a worldwide spotlight shone upon it, the games could transform Iceland forever. Ministry of Culture advisor, Óskar Þór Ármannsson, would strongly support an Olympic hosting proposal if it were brought up. While he does acknowledge the quixotic nature of such a bid, Ármannsson says that with the right amount of grassroots support, “it could be possible.”
When starting a potential – and expensive – Olympic bid, it needs to be a comprehensive and strategic mix including stadiums, accommodations and other resources. Olympic officials consider a city’s elaborate vision for the games including its copious blueprints on the construction of an Olympic Village and even the mascots representing the cities are weighted in on the final decision.
“You have to draw up everything so the Olympic Committee can evaluate each city,” says Ármannsson. “I think the way the city can be presented will play a major role in deciding whether Reykjavik has a feasible chance.”
There are several rigid prerequisites that an Olympic host city must fulfil. They must have at least 40,000 hotel rooms in the 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star categories. They also must have appropriately sized venues for all 35 Summer Olympic sports. A candidate city also must show wide public support in a poll commissioned by the bid committee and then guarantee the financial success of the games.
How Does Reykjavík Stack Up?
Reykjavík would begin its bid with a huge disadvantage, coming up way short of 40,000 required hotel rooms with only 3,382 total hotel rooms and guesthouses in the capital region and 8,874 within the rest of the country, according to 2007 data from Statistics Iceland.
This could be perhaps the most significant hurdle, as many additional hotels would need to be built. In addition, a suitable location for the Olympic village would need to be established. Laugardalur would appear to be an ideal fit with nearby proximity to World Class gym (one of Europe’s largest at 18,000 square meters) and other premiere sporting facilities close by.
In the whole year of 2007, there were 294,279 total international overnight visitors to the country, meaning that on average, 25,000 typically visit per month. The Summer Olympics attract approximately 2 million people for a few weeks. Currently, a massive influx of people that size would certainly bring Keflavik International Airport to its knees in a colossal standstill. An enormous incursion of people would also require light rail to be built between the international airport and Reykjavik. Fortunately, proposals are currently underway as twelve MPs earlier this year proposed feasibility studies of bringing trains to Iceland. Additionally, the currently underutilized Strætó bus system would be a beacon for visitor access.
While Iceland has had limited experience holding international sporting events, it has a few under its belt, including: the 1995 World Men’s Handball Championship (which hosted 24 teams from around the world); the annual Landsmót Horse Show attracting 6–7,000 people yearly; and the globally acclaimed Reykjavik Marathon, annually held in August. With 11,500 participants expected this year, roughly the same number as Olympic competiors in Beijing this year, the Marathon attracts around 1,080 athletes from abroad, with additionally a few thousand international spectators attending.
Reykjavík currently has 7 stadiums (6 football and 1 hockey) including its largest, the national arena, Laugardalsvöllur. Many of these can be renovated to handle different sports, but there would be a lot of catching up to do in terms of building further adequate facilities (for 28 sports) including a large, required velodrome. Splurging millions of dollars on these may be risky as there’s the peril of white elephant stadiums sitting around unused for years after the fact.
The cost to hold the Olympics varies widely. For this year’s Olympics, Beijing spent an astronomical $58.5 billion. In comparison, in 2004, Athens spent a mere $11.6 billion. It should be noted that Iceland’s entire GDP, as of 2007, is $16.9 billion. Intricate planning is crucial to whether games are a financial disaster or a success. Many host cities continue to pay off their debt for years. Worst case scenario: Montreal, which held the games in 1976, spent 30 years paying off the debt from its Olympics. Best case scenario: the 1984 games in LA scored a net profit of $200 million. “The financial resources could be a weak link,” said Ármannsson. “But it is very likely that other Scandinavian countries could help.” If Reykjavík could manage to be relatively thrifty, especially in comparison to China, money might not be a huge liability.
Today, imagining Reykjavík hosting an Olympics the scale of Beijing would be an incredible logistical nightmare never before seen by man and there remain scores of obstacles before the city can even think about hosting an event anywhere close to that scale. However, in due time, perhaps the city, with the right positive attitude and panache, can seriously approach this task and be able to compete up there with the formidable big dogs.Ármannsson, at least, remains optimistic about the future potential of hosting the games and says to never count out the little guy. “I think for Reykjavik, it would not be an unsolvable problem.”