PARIS — In some ways, the International Olympic Committee really can't go wrong this weekend when it picks the host of the 2020 Summer Games. Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul are all fine and famous cities. Each would make a more than adequate backdrop for the greatest spectacle in sports.
But Madrid's Olympic blueprint is the cheapest of the three. That makes it the right choice in economically tough times.
By picking the Spanish capital, rewarding its thrifty approach, the IOC would show that it, too, can practice a measure of austerity. Doing so could perhaps help reconnect the Olympics with critics who complain that sporting mega-events too often become excuses for governments to burn through mountains of money. Making do with Madrid's largely existing venues, rather than opting for Istanbul and Tokyo's plans to build new ones, would counter the idea that the games are inherently wasteful, more showy than responsible.
Without getting too sucked in by his sales pitch for Madrid, Spanish Olympic Committee President Alejandro Blanco spoke sense when he said in March that "the important thing to tell the world is that the Olympics can be held in a dignified manner without throwing money away."
Amen to that. Less costly games that don't cheapen the Olympic experience for athletes or fans. That sounds pretty good after the last two summer Olympics – Beijing 2008 and London 2012 – that, together with the coming Feb. 7-23 winter games in Sochi, Russia, produced costs all-told of more than $100 billion. Sochi is shaping up as the most expensive Olympics ever, with massive cost overruns lifting the price tag to $51 billion. After Sochi comes Brazil, where protesters angry about the billions being spent on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics flooded the streets in June.
Much of the investment goes for things that far outlast the games: train lines, roads, airports, power grids and so forth. London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is far more pleasant than the industrial wasteland it replaced. With the modern winter resort in Sochi, wealthy Russians might feel less of a need to fly to the French Alps to ski. Istanbul's Olympic blueprint includes the decommissioning of an industrial port and the reclamation of industrial sites. In Tokyo Bay, there'll be new venues for sport, leisure and entertainment.
Still, the Olympics don't need to be exercises in extravagance. Post-World War II London held the games in 1948 on a shoestring budget, even asking athletes to bring their own towels. Paris in 1924 was the first to build an Olympic village, housing athletes in wooden cabins.
Of course, such rough living wouldn't work or be acceptable today. The security requirements of the modern Olympics, alone, mean that they cannot operate on a wing and a prayer. They are major and serious enterprises and, as such, don't come cheap.
Still, it is worth remembering that the most important ingredient at any Olympics is the athletes, not the host. Olympic exploits – Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10, Usain Bolt's speed, Michael Phelps' 22 medals, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's "Bolero" – often stick in our minds far longer than the names of the cities where they happened.
Of course, the 2020 games will be memorable, too. How memorable depends less on the outcome of the IOC vote on Saturday and more on the thousands of youngsters around the world, all of them unknown to us now, who are toiling away to go faster, higher, stronger. They will burst onto our television screens in seven years. Whether they do so from Madrid, Istanbul or Tokyo doesn't really matter. But if Madrid reckons that it can deliver these thrills more cost-effectively, then that's even better.
According to the IOC, Istanbul is budgeting $2.9 billion just for the construction of competition and training venues. It would build 21 new, permanent venues to host the games. Billions more are earmarked for railways, roads and other public works, although the IOC says the bulk of this capital investment will happen regardless of whether the city gets the Olympics.
Tokyo's blueprint includes 11 new venues, plus 10 temporary venues that would be dismantled. Venue construction would cost $3 billion, with another $1 billion for the Olympic village, the IOC says.
Stuck in recession, with 26 percent unemployment, Spain must mind its pennies. The IOC says 28 of Madrid's proposed venues are already in place. Just four more would be built, plus another 3 temporary venues.
Madrid's capital budget is $1.94 billion, still a sizeable wad but a bargain compared to the obscene sums poured into other games.
"Taking advantage of its existing, modern infrastructure, Madrid 2020 seeks to demonstrate that the Olympic Games can be organized with low financial investment without compromising the delivery of a high quality Olympic experience," says the IOC's report detailing the three competing bids.
Low investment, high quality. That sounds sensible and desirable. When money is short, the IOC must show that it can tighten its belt, too. A bit of financial dieting could do the Olympics some good.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester