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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

In a post entitled, “White House: Opposing Obama’s Olympics Lobbying Is Unpatriotic or Something”, John McCormack, the deputy editor of the Weekly Standard, writes

I was rooting for Rio. The United States has hosted the Olympics eight times before. Not a single South American country has ever hosted the games. Isn’t it only fair for Brazil to get its day in the sun?

Why, yes, that does seem fair. South America is not a particularly large continent; the whole continent has only about 30 percent more people than the United States does. But for one of its great cities — Rio, Buenos Aires, Santiago — to have never hosted an Olympic Games is a little jarring. Cheers to Rio, which will be a fine host.

On the other hand, doesn’t this sound a little, uh, redistributive? The United States pays in slightly more than half of all Olympics broadcasting rights fees, which in turn makes up about half of the Olypmics’ budget. Most of the balance is paid for by corporate sponsorships — but six of the Olympics’ twelve major sponsors (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Electric, Kodak, Johnson & Johnson and Visa) are based in the United States. (All supporting documentation is here). Why should those hard-working United States corporations and television networks have their money redistributed to a bunch of Greeks or Brazilians or Chinese? We should host the Olympics every other year, dammit.

OK, so the preceding was sarcastic. The truth is, the Olympics are the sort of prize that you might not want to win. The financial windfall they produce for their host cities often fails to outweigh the cost, and some cities like Montreal and Athens have ended up in debt as a result. The requirements imposed by the IOC, which fully leverages its bargaining power, are fairly ridiculous: Chicago, which recently spent $600 million to renovate the 61,500-seat Soldier Field, was going to have to build a new facility just to host the Opening Ceremony because a football stadium evidently isn’t big enough.

But the fact is, we probably wouldn’t be hearing conservatives like Mr. McCormack “Rooting for Rio” if John McCain had been elected President, and he were lobbying for Phoenix’s Olympic bid instead. And we certainly wouldn’t be hearing many of them — including McCormack and his colleagues — erupt in cheers after the American bid had lost.

Nor do I think you’d have seen liberals reacting that way. Although there has also been some liberal criticism of the Olympic bid, and some liberal sentiment that the United States has been a Very Bad Boy and doesn’t deserve the Olympics, I honestly don’t think you’d have seen the Netroots Nation convention burst into cheers once the Phoenix were rejected*.

For Obama to have gone to Copenhagen to pitch the event may have been a mistake — a few phone calls from Washington might have had 98 percent of the impact for 2 percent of the exposure. But he went in his capacity as an American President, and not as a partisan. That the conservative intelligentsia reacted giddily to news of the Americans losing is telling. It’s telling of a movement that was long ago knocked off its intellectual moorings and has lost the capacity to think about what people outside the room think about. Sometimes — certainly on the health care debate, very probably on the bailouts question — conservatives back into something approaching mainstream American sentiment and can cause Obama and his allies a lot of problems. But any movement which also criticizes the President for giving a speech to schoolchildren, which cheers when the United States loses its Olympic bid, is mostly just engaged in the business of throwing a bunch of Kaká at the wall and seeing what sticks. I don’t know whether it’s unpatriotic — but it’s pretty freakin’ dumb.

* Although if you change ‘McCain’ to ‘Palin’ in my counterfactual, and ‘Phoenix’ to ‘Anchorage’ — presumably this would be a Winter Games — I’ll grant you that it might have been a little closer.

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