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Growing backlash against Olympics is about much more than Rio woes

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Rio Games dealing with polluted water (0:59)

With just under six months until the Rio Games, the city is struggling to clean up the heavily polluted waterways. (0:59)

Even before organizers of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games were contending with the Zika virus outbreak and heavy criticism about how the city is dealing with its polluted waters, the International Olympic Committee was facing a growing mood shift about the Olympics as an institution that Rio's widely publicized difficulties will only feed.

More and more cities have already concluded it just doesn't make sense to undertake the risk or cost of hosting the Olympics right now.

The three weeks when the Olympic athletes actually compete still reliably deliver their wondrous magic. And to be fair to Rio, alarmist talk seems to surface before nearly every Olympics. Then the Games come off just fine.

But even those two factors aren't enough anymore to rescue the International Olympic Committee's leadership from criticism that the Games have become too ponderous and expensive to succeed -- at least as they are presently bid out, conceived and run. And the IOC 's history of imperialistic demands and puffery -- such as its 7,000-page bid manual for host cities that addresses details down to when aperitifs or "cakes of the season" are customarily served -- doesn't acquit the 100-member IOC leadership of the charges.

"The IOC is a classic oligarchy that's fiddling while the Olympics burn," says John Rennie Short, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who has written 38 books on globalization and urban issues. "The IOC has a monopoly with little incentive to change. They reap nearly all the benefits while insisting their host cities and governments literally sign documents to bear all the cost and risk. So the whole thing was always a bit of a cabal to begin with anyway, but we didn't mind so much when the cabal was at least working."

Robert Livingstone, an Olympic historian and producer for Gamesbids.com, says things have gone beyond the tipping point.

"The $41 billion or more that Sochi spent is the price tag that scares everybody," he says. "The IOC's whole Agenda 2020 -- the reforms that came out in 2014 citing sustainability, leaving a legacy, things like that -- was their response. But whether the IOC backs up that plan is another question. ... The IOC pushed so far, it finally went too far, and that's why people got so angry."

During the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Games, five cities that expressed interest in bidding abandoned their candidacies because voters or the government wouldn't accept the financial risk. Many of them also blamed the IOC's demands and even "arrogance." Jeff Ruffolo, an American who helped Beijing operate the 2008 Summer Games and make its 2022 bid successful, called the bidding process "a joke."

"Everybody's laughing about it except for the people in Lausanne," Ruffolo told the Guardian, referring to the IOC's headquarters in Switzerland. "They don't realize they are riding a dead horse."

The specter of many of the world's major cities balking at chasing the Olympics was prophesized back in 2002, when then-IOC president Jacques Rogge acknowledged a "need to streamline costs and scale down the Games so the host cities are not limited to wealthy metropolises. The scale of the Games is a threat to their quality."

That sounded encouraging. Then the world saw Athens spend $15 billion on the 2004 Summer Games, which is blamed for helping push Greece into economic crisis. Then Beijing spent a reported $41 billion in 2008 and, in a scene repeated elsewhere, many of its white-elephant Olympic venues have become "ruin porn." London ran up a $15 billion cost overrun in 2012. Now Tokyo, host of the 2020 Summer Games, has already decided it can't afford the stadium that was a centerpiece of its bid. The plans were scrapped in July amid howls of protest.

"Does the IOC care?" Short asks. "What's happened is a classic lesson from the global financial crisis: If you're not responsible for risk, you do stupid things. But many cities are recalculating. That could finally be the crunch."

There is indeed snowballing in the sense that the Games are more broken than ever, and blame lies with the IOC leadership's stewardship.

Those perceptions only accelerated more when the mass withdrawals from the 2022 Winter Games bidding left the IOC with a choice between only Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a return to Beijing, which will have to manufacture massive amounts of snow and is as far as 90 miles from the mountains that will host events. What do the former Soviet Republic and China have in common?

"They're two of the worst places for human rights in the world," Short says. "A lot of European cities are having a hard time getting the choice to bid on the Games past voters. Boston also said no. So what you're left with are countries desperate for recognition and a boost in prestige. Or cities from nondemocratic, totalitarian countries where there are no voter referendums."

One of the most surprising defections from the 2022 bidding was Oslo. Norwegian government officials admitted afterward they had many soul-searching discussions about whether they would be delivering a grievous blow to the Olympic movement if their sports-mad nation -- the country with the most Winter Games medals ever won and where the 1994 Lillehammer Games were a soaring critical and athletic success -- joined the exodus.

"I fear for the future of the Winter Olympics, I really do," said Norwegian lawmaker Svein Harberg, head of the committee that led the debate on abandoning the bid.

"What we do advocate is that cities considering a bid have a real pros-and-cons conversation. And it is definitely a trend that when cities have that debate, they decide it's just not worth it. The cost is high and risk almost limitless."

Chris Dempsey, co-chair of No Boston Olympics

So what tipped the Norwegians' resolve?

"Norway is a rich country, but we don't want to spend money on wrong things, like satisfying the crazy demands from IOC apparatchiks," said Frithjof Jacobsen, chief political commentator for Norwegian newspaper VG.

The criticism is a familiar refrain.

And yet, rather than acknowledge that the Norwegians' reasons echoed concerns voiced in New York and Stockholm, Chicago and Istanbul, Boston and Hamburg, IOC president Thomas Bach scoffed at critics and suggested they distort facts. He pointed to the IOC's new long-term contracts with sponsors and media companies, including its record $7.75 billion deal with NBC for U.S. TV rights.

"The image is very positive," Bach insisted. "Nobody would enter into such kind of agreements if there would be a doubt on the image."

Chris Dempsey, co-chair of the No Boston Olympics effort, disagrees.

After Dempsey's group helped turn public opinion against Boston's bid for the 2024 Summer Games, activists in Hamburg reached out and paid for him and his colleagues to travel to Germany to share tips. A month later, Reuters reported that German officials were shocked when citizens there voted down a December referendum about Hamburg's 2024 bid. Within just the past few weeks, opponents of bids in Rome and Budapest have reached out to Dempsey too.

"We want to be clear that we're not saying no city should host the Olympics," Dempsey stresses. "What we do advocate is that cities considering a bid have a real pros-and-cons conversation. And it is definitely a trend that when cities have that debate, they decide it's just not worth it. The cost is high and risk almost limitless."

It's too soon to call it a full-blown "Kill the Olympics" movement.

For now, it's more of a "Not in My Backyard" backlash. And there's a search for solutions.

One notable exception amid all the pessimism is Los Angeles, which is enthusiastically chasing the 2024 Summer Games.

Los Angeles is often credited for "saving" the Olympics once by stepping in to host the 1984 Summer Games and notching a still unheard-of operating surplus of $225 million. This time around, the Southern California Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games boasts that its plan to use the region's existing facilities, infrastructure and housing can be a model for how future Games are awarded and run. And it hasn't been a hard sell locally.

A poll released last week by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University found 88 percent of Angelenos support L.A. hosting the Games again.

"With 97 percent of the world-class venues in our Games Plan already built or planned as permanent facilities ... we're able to keep the costs low," LA 2024 chief executive officer Gene Sykes wrote in an email to ESPN.com. "The Games must serve our city for generations to come, not for just one month in 2024. That's Olympic legacy in action -- not in theory."

But Short, in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, advocates a more radical approach. It's a fresh, somewhat utopian twist on an old idea that never launched and isn't under serious discussion now: staging the Summer Games in a permanent site near Athens, the ancestral home of the Olympics. Short proposes making the IOC pay -- for a change -- for the construction, facility maintenance and staging of the Games at a green, sustainably built, multivenue complex on one of Greek's many islands and that it be used for other cultural and athletic purposes year-round.

"I don't think it's that off the wall," Short says with a laugh.

Not any more than believing the IOC can stay as it is.