In September, the International Olympic Committee will select the host city for the 2024 Summer Games. As of now, there are technically three contenders—Los Angeles, Paris, and Budapest—but most observers believe it's a two-city race between Los Angeles and Paris. Both are large metropolises equipped to host mega-events, and both have respectable bids that rely on mostly existing infrastructure and have relatively low levels of public expenditure.
And then there's Budapest, a city of 1.7 million people in a country with a per capita GDP around $13,000. A feasibility study published by the bid committee estimated the development cost of hosting the Games at $3.7 billion, or three percent of the entire country's annual GDP—and that is likely a tremendous underestimate of the total cost.
Still, Budapest's bid has lasted until the final round even as other cities have dropped out due to public pressure. Boston and Hamburg abandoned their bids as a result of populist movements with political backing. Rome's new mayor made it a personal mission to destroy the city's bid on the basis of formal studies and sound reasoning, concluding Rome had bigger problems and better ways to spend billions of dollars.
The Hungarian capital may yet join the list of dropped bids, however. In December, a group called NOlimpia, organized in partnership with a new youth-led political party named Momentum, applied to hold a signature drive to force a referendum on whether the city should drop their bid.
Although it's fairly late in the Olympic hosting process for such a measure, it's not for lack of trying. According to Daniel Corsano, NOlimpia's head of content and marketing, the issue has been on their radar for more than a year, but in each local government there can only be one referendum for consideration at a time, meaning it can take a long time to get an issue on the table. "And this government has a habit of blocking unfavorable ones," Corsano said, citing a recent episode where a group of ex-convicts physically prevented a socialist leader from submitting a referendum proposal by blocking the door to a government building.
During this time, Corsano said, Momentum was operating "totally underground" given the political climate. When their referendum proposal was successfully submitted, they stepped into the open and poured resources into this issue.
Momentum, founded in the spring of 2015 by university students and young professionals, views the Olympic fight as just one aspect of their political battle against corruption, division, and unfairly allocated resources. "The Olympics is just the next and most worrying in a line of expensive publicity projects plagued by corruption that exist to draw attention and tax money away from the country's systemic problems," Corsano told me via email. "NOlimpia's message is that Budapest can't afford the Olympics, while Momentum's is about what we think that enormous sum of money should be spent on instead."
To illustrate the point, Corsano, who is also a graduate student at Central European University, told me about Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán's stadium. "He had a stadium built in his home village, Felcsút, right in his backyard (I'm not exaggerating, his house is pointed out on this picture) that cost more per seat than what most first class teams in Western Europe get, and that has a capacity many times the population of the whole area. Meanwhile 1.5 million people, almost one fifth of the country, have no safe home in which to spend the winter."
Although Momentum hasn't released a full manifesto yet—Corsano said they will be publishing one on their website soon—their basic platform is to focus on healthcare, education, rural infrastructure, housing, and poverty. All the issues are interconnected, but there's a strong divide between Budapest, Hungary's only large city, and the rest of the country, particularly rural areas. The proposed Olympics infrastructure projects would further that imbalance, developing Budapest even more without helping the rural areas that need it most.
"Budapest (at least the centre) is a European city, but large swaths of the countryside resemble the left-behind regions of the Balkans," Corsano wrote to me. "And we believe that bringing the left-behind areas of the country into the 21st century (or even the 20th in some cases) is more urgent than panem et circenses for the voters in the capital."
So far, their message seems to be resonating. As of January 29, NOlimpia has approximately 70,000 signatures out of the 138,000 needed to force a vote. However, the group wants to get 200,000 signatures to be on the safe side, since they have received reports of fake or intentionally invalid signatures. They have a month to collect the necessary signatures.
If they do, the referendum would be a simple majority-rules vote requiring 50 percent voter turnout. It's hard to say how such a vote would go since polling in Hungary is often government-run and unreliable. The most recent such poll reported 55 percent of people in Budapest support the Olympics. However, NOlimpia has a team of social scientists who studied the poll and believe the number is "almost certainly false." They think the number is closer to 40 percent.
"We believe that if we get the signatures, we will win," Corsano said. "This is why we even started."
NOlimpia's drive is already proving the viability of Momentum's larger platform. The Green Party is also collecting signatures and, according to Corsano, claims to have collected more than 10,000. The country's "joke" party, the MKKP, is also helping out. Surprisingly, NOlimpia has also received support from the political right, which Corsano called "unprecedented…. The fact that, for the first time since the fall of communism, we have liberals, socialists, and nationalists coming together for a single cause is a sign of hope."
Herein lies the irony of the Olympic Movement in the 21st century. Part of the IOC's mission is to create a sustainable Olympics and promote peace and equality. Paradoxically, by so completely failing at that goal in past host cities, the IOC is partially accomplishing it for prospective ones. In the fiercely divided Hungarian political climate where nobody agrees on anything, the singular issue on which all sides of the political aisle can come together is that they want nothing to do with the Olympics.
Against all odds, the Olympics are uniting the world—against the Olympics. At least in Budapest, it seems to be working. The IOC insists on overwhelming local support for hosting the Games, and Budapest doesn't have it. The petition drive just may take Budapest out of the running once and for all, vote or no vote. In many ways, NOlimpia has already won.
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