The cost of hosting an Olympic Games

This week Julia Ioffe, writing in The Atlantic, said we should ban the Olympics. She asked that ‘other than fuel corruption, make countries spend pointlessly and profligately, inflame nationalist sentiment, act as onanistic stand-ins for geopolitical tensions, and cloak authoritarian leaders in legitimacy, what have the Olympics ever done for us?’ It’s a fair point, and in focus in this article is the spending that is according to Ioffe pointless and profligate.

The Winter Olympics that are coming to an end in PyeongChang have cost an estimated 10 billion dollars. Although this sounds like an astronomical figure (and it is), this is much less than the previous winter games in Sochi cost, which were the most expensive ever at an estimated 50 billion dollars. The 2010 games in Vancouver were estimated to cost 660 million dollars, but they exceeded this spending by 5 billion, and when the financial crisis hit, the Canadian government had to bail out the organising committee.

So, is Ioffe right? Is this spending pointless? Well, one common argument is that the benefits of hosting the Games are felt for years afterwards. The Olympics’ official website published an article towards the end of the 2016 summer games, a games blighted by the contradictory situations of Brazil’s poor, and the world’s richest people, who descended on Rio de Janeiro to watch sport’s biggest spectacle. The article was clearly aware of such knowledge, as it was focused on the benefits that Sydney, host of the 2000 games, was still feeling, sixteen years later.

It pointed out that the games led to Australia’s first urban water recycling system, saving the country 850 million litres of drinking water a year. And it went further, saying ‘construction of the Sydney Olympic Park led to the restoration of approximately 160 hectares of badly degraded land and the establishment of one of the largest urban parklands in Australia. As a result, the local community is now able to enjoy 35km of cycle paths and walking trails, BBQ and family picnic facilities, bird watching, playgrounds and water play areas.’ This is all very wholesome, and clearly deliberately timed, designed to assuage questions of how useful the spending in Rio will prove in the future.

But aside from water recycling projects, cycle paths and walking trails, perhaps the most common argument used for hosting an Olympic Games is the tourism. Superficially, the logic is there: if you host an Olympics more people will come to the city. But this isn’t always the case. Beijing actually saw a drop in hotel bookings during the summer it hosted the games, according to The Economist.

Furthermore, although tourism in London during the 2012 games increased, this was a certain kind of tourism: sports fans. The rest of London didn’t see the benefit. The Adelphi Theatre suspended its performances of Sweeney Todd for the duration of the games, and according to the New York Times the British Museum received 480,000 visitors in August 2012, compared to 617,000 in August 2011.

An economist at the University of South Florida, Philip Porter, summed up the idea of spending on an Olympic Games in the hopes of boosting the economy, when he told the New York Times: ‘the bottom line is, every time we’ve looked – dozens of scholars, dozens of times – we find no real change in economic activity.’

So, is it pointless? Possibly. But the more concerning element of spending on a games is its profligacy. The spending by cities in their preparations for an Olympic Games often mean other, worthier, programs or services can be underfunded. Rio’s games experienced waves of protest, including an alternative opening ceremony, aimed at highlighting the pointlessness of spending on an Olympic Games when its host city is poverty-ridden.

What is most concerning though, is when money is spent on clearing homes of people in the host cities, so more stadiums and venues can be built. According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, more than two million people were forcibly displaced for an Olympic Games during a twenty-year period. This includes 720,000 people for the games in Seoul, South Korea, and 30,000 people for the Atlanta games. And Reuters reported that by the time the Beijing Olympics came around, 1.5 million people had been displaced. Moving people costs money, and this money could have been spent improving the condition of the areas these people lived in, rather than bulldozing them to make room for a stadium.

These problems are not unique to the Olympics of course, the COHRE report also noted that 1000 homes were bulldozed for the Miss World pageant in Nigeria in 2012. And residents of Rio wrote graffiti on the streets in the build up to the 2014 world cup that said things like ‘tourists: don’t get sick. We have stadiums but we don’t have hospitals.’ But the COHRE report does point out that the Olympics is the leader in big events at displacing people its presence is meant to help.

So, spending for the Olympics can be pointless and it can be profligate, but I will not go as far as Julia Ioffe and call for them to be banned. This is extremely unlikely to happen, and impossible to enforce: how do you actually ban an international sporting event? Also, the Olympics are full of heart-warming athletic stories and shows of sportsmanship that transcend nationality. They also provide a showcase for sports that are ignored ordinarily. When, other than in an Olympics, do you find yourself sitting down to watch the luge? And just why does everyone in the office become an expert in synchronised swimming when an Olympic summer comes around?

What should be re-examined is not the concept of having an Olympic Games, but how they are hosted. Perhaps as well as the new hotels and venues that the winning city has to show they can build, they also could show the programs they will run to combat poverty in the city’s deprived areas. Either that, or the pressure is taken away from one city, and instead put on a nation. It would be much easier for South Korea as a whole to manage the load of an Olympics, rather than putting the weight on one city. As always, I don’t have the full answer or solution. But the Olympic Games shouldn’t be banned, just reformed.

Photo Credit: Getty Images. 

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