ROME — It takes, oh, about 10 seconds in the Eternal City these days to see that the former caput mundi is actually close to kaput. Between the piles of garbage and the graffiti, the inefficient public transportation and the wringing of the hands over a struggling new city government, it’s hard to choose what’s worst among the bad news.
The city’s new mayor Virginia Raggi, who entered office in a major win for the up-and-coming anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has faced a number of obstacles since her landmark election in June, including many she put up herself—like the appointment of a garbage czar whose hands weren’t exactly clean.
On Wednesday, she did something that may finally win her more fans than enemies. She announced she wouldn’t stand behind Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, using what some people might know as “logic” by calling the $6 billion effort “irresponsible, unsustainable, and unaffordable.”
“This city is unlivable,” Raggi said as she announced her decision after weeks of rumors that she would not support the bid. “We need to focus on that.”
“In light of the data we have, these Olympics are not sustainable. They will bring only debt,” she said. “Romans don’t want to pay for more cathedrals in the desert for years to come.”
In essence, there will be no bread and circuses like the ancient emperors used to distract the citizens of Rome when things got bad.
Raggi quoted a recent Oxford University study into the cost-effectiveness of staging an Olympics, pointing to the fact that the Summer Games are notoriously debt-building endeavors for cities. “The Olympics have the highest average cost overrun of any type of mega-project,” according to the report. “Moreover, cost overrun is found in all Games, without exception; for no other type of mega-project is this the case.”
London 2012 cost $15 billion, more than three times the original budget. Rio 2016 cost much less, but still set back that struggling city $4.6 billion. And the $11 billion that Athens paid to host the 2004 games is still considered a major factor in how Greece’s public debt got so out of hand. The only host city to turn a profit in recent history was Los Angeles in 1984, when they actually made $150 million because they had so few facilities to build.
Los Angeles is competing again for 2024 against Budapest and Paris, which remains seen as the favorite despite security concerns. Boston and Hamburg, Germany, both dropped their bids due to a lack of public support, much along the lines that Romans feel.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had originally signed on to support the bid back when it was discussed, but he has vowed not to get involved. Rome’s city hall must approve the measure to officially pull support for the bid, which could happen within the coming days. And that still doesn’t mean the the Italian Olympic Committee has to drop its bid, though the lack of support by the mayor of a host city is certainly the death knell for any project.
Raggi was scheduled to meet with Italian Olympic Committee President Giovanni Malago, who has been putting pressure on her and pushing for the Rome bid even as the city’s problems accumulate. Instead, she stood him up Wednesday, making him wait 45 minutes before she officially canceled the meeting. She was spotted having lunch with some of her city-hall officemates at a local trattoria by the city’s train station instead.
Malago has claimed that his $6 billion bid would create jobs and help the city reclaim some of its former glory. The plan included using pre-existing structures for some 70 percent of the venues, including some ancient Roman ruins and even the ancient Roman Colosseum for events like awards ceremonies. Raggi instead insists the city is still paying off the debt it incurred for the 1960 Games.
In a hastily arranged press conference, Malago essentially scolded Raggi for letting concerns about how to pay for the Games guide her decision. “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about,” he said, noting that much of a $27 million budget for the bid process alone has already been spent on promotion.
Raggi remains convinced that the city isn’t in good enough shape for the Olympics. “We have a much more ambitious project for Rome than the one for the 2024 Games,” she said. “We want to upgrade the services, give back to citizens a city that is as worthy as any other European capital.”
For Romans who have been suffering at the hands of ineffective governments and a mafia scandal for years, a livable city is a far better prize than any gold medal, even if it seems as much of a long shot.