Are the Olympics worth the price?

Story highlights

  • The Olympic Games is currently taking place in Rio de Janeiro
  • Natalie Vie: It's time for a more open and inclusive conversation about how future Games will be managed

Natalie Vie is a Team USA Fencer and a two-time US National Champion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A wide ocean of fresh concrete glistened outside the fencing arena in the Olympic Village. I was in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Test Games, three months before the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

I am honored to be able travel to Rio de Janeiro -- and all over the world -- to represent my country and my sport. I feel that I truly am the product of the Olympic movement and that my experiences as a high-performance athlete have molded me into the best version of myself. When I fence with an opponent I feel connected to them without having to speak a common language because fencing is a language all its own. This and so much more is what fencing -- and the Olympic Movement more broadly -- has given me.
    Natalie Vie
    Yet as a participant in this incredible global movement, I cannot help but wonder if the many fiscal, environmental and social controversies that so often surround the Olympic host cities are preventable. And if they are, is it ethically responsible to continue business as usual without trying to prevent these fiscal, environmental and social detriments?
    Although hosting the Olympic Games is prestigious, it's rarely lucrative -- the 1984 Games in Los Angeles is often described as the first since 1932 to turn a profit. Many countries, meanwhile, have taken years to pay back their debts -- and often at the taxpayers' expense. The 1976 Games in Montreal ended up costing far more than originally planned, while the summer Games in Athens in 2004 -- which cost the country about $11 billion by some estimates -- was widely seen as symptomatic of the kind of economic mismanagement that led to Greece's subsequent economic collapse.
    But the questionable economics of hosting an Olympics are not the only issue -- the World Cup and Olympics in Rio have also highlighted social conflict and even violent clashes between Brazilian law enforcement and those refusing to allow themselves to be evicted from their homes as the Olympic Village and World Cup facilities were being built.
    This has felt particularly personal to me. For one, Rio is a stop on our annual FIE [fencing] World Cup Circuit, so I have spent a lot of time there. In addition, the Olympic Village was built in Barra de Tijuca, where my family and I happened to live for a brief time when I was young.
    I know I'm not the only one saddened by this turmoil. Fencer Akhnaten "Akhi" Spencer-El, who competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, told me: "It saddens me as an Olympian and as a longtime part of the US team that we're in a way contributing to the suffering of people. It seems counter to what the Olympics is all about."
    Or as my longtime friend and Rio Olympic Coach Christian Rivera put it: "The controversies facing these Games bring the exact opposite of what we worked our entire lives for."
    With all this in mind, it's time that we as a community address the many social, environmental and economic issues that have plagued so many of the Olympic host cities for years. And the best way to do so is to learn from those host cities that have had some success.
    Barcelona's 1992 Summer Olympic Games is a good example.
    The city ended up with a surplus, and the Games became a catalyst for longstanding plans to invest in city infrastructure. Officials wanted to restructure the city post-Franco, and hosting the Olympics was seen as a good opportunity to do so. With that in mind, much of the infrastructure expenditure went into improvements and upgrades of existing structures, investments that are still paying off. Barcelona now regularly hosts a number of international sporting events, including the FIE Women's Epee World Cup as part of the FIE World Cup Circuit, in which I compete.
    Too often, though, the actions of the Olympic community are not meeting these lofty standards. So while it might be possible to learn from the individual experiences of some host cities, it might be time for a more radical solution.
    When I returned home after the Olympic Test Games, my boyfriend proposed a simple idea, but one that would be groundbreaking if it were implemented: A permanent site for the Olympics.
    Coach Rivera agreed that this could be the best way forward.
    "The Olympics needs to abandon the idea of circulating the Olympic site and go back to the roots of having one location as a home," he told me. "I wouldn't be opposed to it returning to Olympia."
    How might this benefit the Games?
    For a start, it would dramatically reduce infrastructure costs, giving future Games a much better chance of being profitable.
    In addition, by focusing on upgrading existing infrastructure, rather than launching whole new projects, a permanent site might help mitigate the egregious environmental effects that are associated with constructing venues for Summer and Winter Games alike. In doing this, the Games might also find themselves less dependent on corporate investment, helping them return to their roots and helping meet one of the IOC's definitions of the Olympic movement: Opposition to all forms of commercial exploitation of sport and athletes.
    But even if a permanent Olympic venue is not in the cards, it is time for a more open and inclusive conversation about how future Games will be managed -- before another host city is selected.
    Personally, I would like to see a pledge that not a single family will be forcefully evicted from their home, while local natural habitats should also be respected. Another goal should be to ensure that any potential host is not incurring unmanageable debt that risks adversely affecting the respective country's economy.
    As I put together my thoughts for this op-ed, I spoke with numerous coaches and athletes. But that should be only one of the series of conversations that the Olympic movement has. If we are to develop environmentally and socially sustainable solutions, then the world's sporting community will need to make sure that many more of these discussions take place in the years to come.