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Konrad Werner: Losing faith in the Olympics

Last day of our Olympics week. Konrad weighs in here: A bit like with the Catholic Church in the 16th century – enlightened Germans are beginning to lose their faith in the Olympics.

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Whenever a German city bids for the games, there’s more and more scepticism about the idea of inviting a cabal of unaccountable officials to come and take bribes and then stage a vast, elaborate event decorated with fascist symbols in your home town. Last year, Munich turned down the chance to host the Winter Olympics in 2022, and now Berlin and Hamburg must decide whether they want to pay their dues to the god of the IOC.

Given this new feeling, it makes sense that Berlin’s campaign for the 2024 Summer Games is guided by a spirit of Protestant modesty – these Games, they promise, will be mainly one thing: cheap. The “Why Berlin?” page of the campaign’s “Wir wollen die Spiele” website is a list of all the things that Berlin won’t need to build to host the Games, and concludes: “Because of all these points, Berlin can largely avoid the expensive infrastructure investments (which in the past have often made up the main costs of the Olympics). No new U-Bahn, no new Olympic Stadium, and no new hotel need be built in Berlin for these Games. This makes possible inexpensive Games, compared to other countries.”

There are obvious reasons to promote the idea of austere, frugal Olympics. Berlin hasn’t exactly got a great track record when it comes to building big new things. The BER airport debacle has become a tired joke, and meanwhile the German capital has the second highest public debt per capita than any of the 16 states (behind Bremen). So all the promises about how cheap it’s going to be is really just the sound of political leaders grovelling on behalf of their business friends.

And even if the Berlin Olympics 2024 really doesn’t cost any more than the €2 billion it’s supposed to cost, the news from Berlin’s public works departments suggests they’re not in any shape to start putting it together. Local districts have to let funding allocated for special renovations lapse because they lack the personnel to manage projects, refugee agencies complain they can’t keep up with all the new asylum applications – despite political pressure to slash waiting times – and district offices can’t process the building permits for new road works. According to the Tagesspiegel, a third of public officials will reach retirement age in the next five years, and the lack of qualified workers in Germany’s job market means it will be hard to replace them. If Berlin is going to put together the Olympic Games, it’s going to have to overhaul its public services first, something which it doesn’t seem to be interested in.

That’s because there’s no money for that – just as there’s no money to revamp Berlin’s sporting infrastructure. According to a report from Berlin’s sports ministry, “many of the sports facilities show structural, safety, and sporting shortfalls, to the extent that their survival cannot be considered guaranteed.”

Berlin’s Landessportbund association estimates that the city’s sporting facilities need an investment of €300 million, because children and young people are playing sports on facilities that date from the 1950s. But instead of that, the Berlin government would rather blow the cash on a huge party in 2024 in honour of an abstract, corrupt power. That’s fine, but it is not the behaviour of good, rational, puritanical Germans striving to free themselves from centuries of the Vatican yoke.