Earlier this month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo officially ordered his cabinet to begin preparing a roadmap for the country’s bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games. In a cabinet meeting on November 4, the president, known commonly as Jokowi, instructed officials to have Jakarta’s bid for the Games ready before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) kicks off the host selection process in 2023.
As Jokowi told the cabinet, the bid is intended to build on Indonesia’s successful hosting of the 2018 Asian Games, which “has improved our confidence and is an eye-opener for the world that Indonesia is capable of hosting international events.” Jokowi first signaled his intention to submit a bid in a letter to the IOC in early 2019.
If successful, Jakarta would become the first Southeast Asian city to host the Olympics, though it is not the first to bid for it: both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur applied to host the 2008 Olympics, and both fell short of the IOC’s final shortlist.
Indonesia’s National Olympic Committee seems confident that after its successful hosting in Jakarta and Palembang of the 2018 Asian Games, the world’s second biggest multi-sport event behind the Olympics, Indonesia can mount a serious case to the IOC. As Muliaman Hadad, Indonesia’s ambassador to Switzerland, put it in a statement last year, “This is the right moment to show Indonesia’s capability as a big country.”
A successful Indonesian bid would certainly help put the country, and Southeast Asia, on the global sporting map. But leaving aside the question of whether time and energy should be invested in such a bid in the middle of a viral pandemic – one that had racked up 470,648 infections and 15,296 deaths in Indonesia as of November 16 – Jakarta faces an uphill slog to win hosting rights. To start with, it is likely to face stiff competition from the likes of Mumbai, Doha, Madrid, and Brisbane, as well as a novel joint bid by Seoul and Pyongyang.
It is also questionable whether the traffic-choked Indonesian metropolis would be well equipped to handle the massive influx of athletes, fans, and tourists that would follow a successful bid. Indeed, Jakarta has recently become so heaving and congested and flood-prone that Jokowi has hatched controversial plans to build a new capital in the Kalimantan jungle some 1,300 kilometers across the sea on the island of Borneo.
Even if successful, Jakarta’s bid might be a case of “careful what you wish for.” Given the need to construct athletic venues, Olympic villages, and media centers, as well as the need to upgrade transportation systems, the Olympics have become notorious for costing host cities far in excess of what they bring in. In 2016, Researchers at Oxford University published a study showing that no Olympic Games since 1960 had come in under budget. They found that the average cost overrun, in real terms, was 156 percent.
A decade after hosting the Olympics in 2004, Athens remains strewn with empty, moldering stadia and stagnant training pools whose haunted decrepitude has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Meanwhile, Brazil’s government spent billions on building the infrastructure necessary for Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 games. On the eve of the latter event, the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College said, “The Rio situation right now is tragic. It’s very depressing. It’s a country that never should have tried to host the Olympics.” He predicted that the Brazilian games could end up costing as much as $20 billion.
Past cities’ experience seems to suggest that it is possible to profit from the Olympics – but only if they get basically everything right. The challenges are naturally greater for developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia, whose candidate cities may lack the necessary transportation, sanitation, and sporting infrastructure to make an Olympics bid an economically feasible enterprise.
Indeed, in its aspirational grandeur and seeming defiance of economic rationality, the Jakarta Olympic bid bears a glancing resemblance to Jokowi’s $33 billion plan to construct a new Indonesian capital on the island of Borneo. In his recent book “Man of Contradictions,” Ben Bland of Sydney’s Lowy Institute argued that the “impulsive and expensive” project – which Indonesian wags soon dubbed “Jokopolis” – was “testament to his whimsical nature and his disorganized governing style” as well as his desire to imprint his legacy on Indonesia.
The project was supposed to begin construction this year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it remains to be seen whether it will ever be built. But some have questioned whether so many billions of dollars could better be spent elsewhere, especially given the developmental shortfalls that have been cast into stark relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. The same questions will no doubt hover over Jakarta’s quixotic Olympics bid, on the off chance that it succeeds.