Why I still won’t be watching the Olympics

I wrote this piece five years ago, at the time of the 2016 Rio Olympics. I am not sure much has changed, has it? In addition, we are staging a potentially virus-super-spreading event in a country whose population mostly don’t want it, who have been put into lockdown to allow the event to take place. Really?

For the next three weeks, our TV schedules are going to be dominated by ‘the greatest spectacle on earth’ that we call the Olympic Games. There is no doubt that there will be extraordinary feats of courage and endurance, and inspiring stories of individuals winning against the odds. Clergy will be on the lookout for testimonies from people of faith and other sermon illustrations; most will be putting their feet up at the end of a busy day and unwinding while watching Olympians begin their day’s work.

But I won’t be joining them. This is not because I don’t enjoy sport or am ignorant of competition; I once spent two or three hours a day training for my University rowing crew, and won University Sports colours by winning a regatta at Senior A class (one below the national Elite standard)—and I enjoyed it. No, it is because of the hidden and not-so-hidden costs of the Olympics—many shared with other global sports spectacles—that we conveniently forget when we actually tune in to the day’s highlights from Rio.

1. The Games cost a fortune and often cripple the host city

The record of Olympic spending is an eye-watering catalogue of overspend and debt accumulation. The worst was Montreal in 1976; the mayor having said ‘The budget can no more over-spend than a man can have a baby’, the cost was eight times the plan, the city only paid off the debt after 30 years, and the main stadium still stands empty.

“There’s no incentive to get it right,” Stewart says. “People say: We know it’s going to cost more, and we accept it.” The host city signs a contract with the IOC saying the city will have to cover cost overruns. “It’s a blank check. Is the overrun a surprise?” she asks. “Not really.”

 Tim Harford points out the problems at the financial level.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the London 2012 Olympics. It was a superb spectacle in its own right and there’s an impressive legacy — some great sporting facilities, a lovely park and new housing in a city that desperately needs it. I just doubt that it was worth what it cost. Very few Olympic Games are.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise: hosting the games is not unlike building a church for one single, glorious wedding celebration. The expensive facilities will only be fully used for a short time. They will then either be underutilised or, at best, cleverly reworked at some expense. It’s possible to adjust and dye a wedding dress so that it can be worn again but this is a pricey way to get a posh frock.

So how are these projects ever justified? By ‘fudging the figures’ Tim says—which is an economist’s term for lying.

2. The Games create endemic corruption

Such a large, costly and symbolic event encourages corruption at every level—in the process of bidding, in the purpose of the games as national showcases for corrupt regimes, amongst athletes, and at the local level in the building contracts.

French prosecutors are investigating allegations that the IOC’s decision to award Tokyo the 2020 Summer Games was greased by payoffs, as many previous games have been.

In Brazil, where the 2016 Summer Olympics are supposed to begin Aug. 5, police and prosecutors have found evidence that Olympics-related infrastructure development became a font of payoffs and kickbacks. Potentially involved are some of the politicians implicated in the wider corruption scandal that has destabilized the Brazilian government, at precisely the moment it should have been devoting full attention to the security and efficiency of the Games.

Many of the individual sports, such as boxing, are also plagued by corruption allegations.

3. The Games promote unhealthy eating and drinking

There was widespread criticism of the sponsorship of London 2012 by McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, but it does not appear to have had much impact on the approach to sponsorship of the games.

“We know first hand from London 2012 what a carnival of junk food marketing the Olympics are,” said Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the campaign [against unhealthy Olympic sponsorship].

“And we are seeing it again this time, with almost all Kellogg’s Games-related marketing currently promoting high-sugar, less healthy products; with Coca-Cola’s global #thatsgold ad giving twice as much screen time to red, full-sugar Coke as to Coke Life and Coke Zero Sugar combined; and with the emergence of limited edition Brazilian flag-coloured M&M’s and other sugary products which associate themselves with the Games.”

4. The Games don’t deliver a legacy

The bid for London 2012 was large won (against the bid from Paris) on the basis that it would leave a long-term legacy—renewal and affordable housing in the East End, and a ‘Singapore legacy’ of a permanently healthier nation, more active as they were inspired by watching the Olympian ideal. Neither has transpired.

Four years on and the Olympic legacy has left housing options in the borough worse than their pre-2012 levels. One location in particular tells the sorry tale of post-games gentrification. In preparation for the building of the Athletes’ Village, 425 tenants from the Clays Lane Housing co-operative were relocated by the London Development Agency. Back in 2007, a one-room flat in the co-op stood at £200pcm; these days, one-bedroom flats in the Athletes’ Village, now re-purposed as the “East Village”, cost an average of £1580pcm to rent. That’s eight times the location’s original value over a four-year period.

Just three of the 26 Olympic sports – athletics, cycling and gymnastics – have seen statistically significant increases in participation since 2012-13, with 15 other sports recording a fall. And since the Olympics, once-a-month participation figures show nearly 700,000 fewer adults are playing nationally funded sports. Since 2010, over 1.5m more people are not taking part in any sport. And that against the backdrop of a growing population base.

5. The Games have a huge environmental impact

Although there has been a strong move towards a ‘greener’ games, there is no denying the massive environmental impact of the games, which includes the cost of building (often with concrete) and the destruction of diverse ecosystems.

The 2012 London Games were promoted as a green games, with greater use of renewable energy and water recycling. The polluted lower Lea Valley was cleaned up; only wood from sustainable sources was used, while the soil removed for the swimming pools was used in the landscaping of local parks. Even with these projects, the games generated around 3.45m tons of CO2.

It is actually very difficult to establish the total environmental impact, since ‘analyses are hampered by lack of proper accounting methods, technical issues and the lack of available data…The environmental turn since the 1990s is not a continuous line of progress. For every London, there is also a Sochi.’

6. The Games Displace the Poor

According to a report released by the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics and translated by Al Jazeera, “at least 4,120 families have been removed and 2,486 remain under removal by reasons directly or indirectly related to the Olympic Project”. According to another report, that figure could be as high as 19,000 families.

7. The Games can encourage sex trafficking

There is a danger that these Olympics will see a rise in sex trafficking as other events have.

Frequently major international events such as the Olympics and the World Cup contribute to an increase in forced labor and sex trafficking in the country where the games are held. Sexual exploitation rose 30 percent in connection with the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and 40 percent at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

But this doesn’t appear to have happened following the last World Cup in Brazil, so perhaps there is hope there. There is still the assumption that the games will be an orgy of promiscuity between competitors; this year, despite Covid-19, 160,000 condoms have been distributed to the athletes.

8. The Games promote the narrative of competition

It is worth reflecting why the Games have become so important and symbolic in a world where free market economics dominates the global economic scene. The message appears to be ‘It is through competition (rather than collaboration) that humanity achieves its highest ideals.’

That wouldn’t be worrying if it weren’t for the corrosive effect of that narrative on just about every aspect of life. We are currently having a debate about why it is that the banking industry, subject to market competition like many other areas of life, still does not offer good value for money to customers. The plan is to introduce even more competition, so that rival banks can look at our account transaction and woo us with a better off. Why has no one suggested the obvious other alternative—that the banking sector actually priorities serving customers well, rather than competing more?

The competition model is critically damaging education, where schools have to compete with other schools to attract pupils, leading to growing pressure on teachers to perform, and in medicine, where Trusts compete with one another to provide services. I wonder what will have to happen, beyond continued failure to improve attainment and NHS Trusts going bust, in order for us to abandon this narrative?

Is it possible to watch the games, and put out of our mind the process that led to the building of the stands and the impact on those around when it was built? Is it possible to forget the environmental impact and the lack of legacy? Is it possible to set aside the narrative of competition and just enjoy the moment? It seems to me that the real winners in all this are not the men and women with medals around their neck, but the politicians and corporate executives who end up the richer.

Additional note

Thanks to the various people who have pointed me to other commentary in this direction.

‘Brutal but effective’: why Team GB has won so many Olympic medals

Some critics, however, say UK Sport’s approach has gone too far and is damaging grassroots sport. They have argued that focusing disproportionately on sports such as cycling, sailing and rowing has meant those such as basketball risk withering because they were unable to demonstrate they would win a medal at either of the next two Olympics.

“We can ask all the philosophical questions, which are valid. What about basketball, which has a lot of social potential in the inner cities? What about volleyball? What about fencing? Why focus on specific sports?” said Garcia.

“Participation is going down. Why do we invest all this money in all those medals? Just to get the medals? To get people active? To make Great Britain’s name known around the world? With a cold analysis of the objectives and the money invested, yes it has worked.

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29 thoughts on “Why I still won’t be watching the Olympics”

  1. You forgot – this year a couple of middle-aged white males who “identify” as women have denied young female athletes of colour an opportunity to compete in the games.

  2. Good piece. Sport has become the worst sort of business: hyped and elitist and opaque. It should be simple, fun and healthy but it’s become an ugly monster that feeds of money and who wears the logos of its corporate sponsors.

  3. Thought-provoking, and indeed one does have to also wonder about the

    But I do have to take issue with:

    The Games promote the narrative of competition

    …because, well, what’s wrong with the narrative of competition? The example given shows how confused this thinking is:

    The plan is to introduce even more competition, so that rival banks can look at our account transaction and woo us with a better off. Why has no one suggested the obvious other alternative—that the banking sector actually priorities serving customers well, rather than competing more?

    What on Earth do you think incentivises banks to prioritise serving customers, if not the competition that means that a bank which gives bad customer service will lost customers to backs which do it better?

    If there were no competition, if there were only one bank in the country and everyone had to use it, there would be no reason for that bank, or for anyone working for it, to bother serving any customers at all. They could keep people hanging on the telephone for days; they could be sloppy in their paperwork and make mistake after mistake; they could knock off an hour early every day, and rock up two hours late and hung over every morning. And they would suffer no consequences, because everyone would still have to use them because they had no competition.

    And the same applies to schools, and hospitals:

    The competition model is critically damaging education, where schools have to compete with other schools to attract pupils, leading to growing pressure on teachers to perform, and in medicine, where Trusts compete with one another to provide services.

    Do you not want teachers to be under pressure to perform? You seriously think that that would help attainment, teachers being under no pressure at all to do a good job; and, presumably, also schools being under no pressure to get rid of incompetent or underperforming teachers?

    And we don’t actually have anything close to competition in medicine, but given what we’ve seen even in just maternity care in Morcambe Bay and Shrewsbury and Telford, it seems hard be believe that some kind of competition where maternity units publish their mother and baby morality rates and compete to attract expectant mothers by having the lowest wouldn’t have helped such scandals be uncovered sooner, and saved some of the tragic consequences that came from the lack of such competition that allowed unethical and deadly practices to flourish undetected due to the lack of such information and the fact that patients had no choice because there was no competition.

    • indeed one does have to also wonder about the

      Sorry forgot to finish that thought:

      …indeed one does have to also wonder about the value of a medal when, these days, there’s always the nagging feeling that it was probably won with pharmaceutical assistance.

  4. You omitted that key word, sacrifice! Though indirectly it was touched on.
    And of course that constant, pride.
    And vicarious particitation in victory
    It’s all so very theological.

  5. Personally I’m still fuming about the double standards of the rules for ‘acceptable wear’ in beach volleyball, and applauding the Norwegian women’s team for fighting for their right to wear shorts not minuscule bikini bottoms…

  6. It is good to be brought back to earth with a critique like this. It’s just a pity that the same scepticism cannot be applied to the whole coronavirus phenomenon, including (to take your points in order) the colossal expense (some £400 billion), the colossal corruption (e.g. within the UK government, within the pharmaceutical industry, within WHO), the promotion of unhealthy ‘stay-at-home’ living, a colossal legacy for future generations in terms of national debt/missed education/rocketing house prices etc, a huge environmental impact (the dumping of billions of totally ineffectual single-use masks) and huge consequences for the world’s poor .

    ‘We are staging a potentially virus super-spreader event [link to The Guardian‘. ‘Potentially’ of course allows you to be prophetic without the risk of the prophecy failing. It’s this kind of alarmist thinking that has repeatedly proved hopelessly wrong every time potential worst-case scenarios were used to justify catastrophic lockdowns (510,000 due to die in the UK in March-May 2020 – the actual number was <40,000, the Swedish experience demonstrating that the disparity had nothing to do with lockdown or test and trace etc; 4000 deaths per day projected in November 2020 – they peaked at 475) … not to mention the worst-case scenarios used to justify the delay of 'Freedom Day' and to prophesy doom when the delayed watered-down Freedom Day went ahead. (Neil Ferguson said 18 July on the Marr program that a rise in daily 'cases' to 100,000 would be 'almost inevitable' – they have been steadily falling since 16 July.)

    For the latest data in Japan, go to e.g. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/japan/
    Daily new cases are less than a quarter of what they are in the UK, despite a population twice the size of ours, while deaths, shown towards the bottom of the page, are currently around 10 per day. This is approximately the same level as deaths from road accidents.

    For further perspective, on average around 600,000 people die every year in the UK. In the last decade, mortality was at an all-time low. Age-adjusted mortality in 2020 was higher than average but still lower than in every year in recorded history before 2009.

    Japan’s covid death record is orders of magnitude better than ours (chart). If you think that Japan’s decision to put the country into lockdown is justified, I am just glad you’re not part of SAGE! The nation’s enslavement to fear is bad enough as it is.

    • Goodness, a Christian who’s actually giving thought and daring to mention the social and economic destruction of the last 17 months! And that’s only half the story.

      Part 2 – and truly frightening – is the internationally orchestrated exploitation of the situation which goes a lot deeper than the vast amounts of money being made on the back of the as yet experimental vaccines while the cheap as chips and very helpful Ivermectin is not allowed to be used in the UK. Then there’s the ‘outrageous’ (Steve Baker’s words) vaccine passports, developed by Gove, and no longer the ‘conspiracy theory’ of early spring. And reports of our vacuous and amoral prime minister ‘in a rage’ because the vaccines aren’t being taken up fast enough by the youngsters.

      We’re living through the darkest times I’ve known, with worse to come – and ne’er a squeak from Christians en masse as far as I can tell.

      • Darkest times? Really? In the scheme of history, this is a mere blip.

        People need to get real.

        Perhaps if youd lived just a century ago when there was no such thing as antibiotics or vaccines – then you’d know ‘darkest times’.

        • Dear PC1 and Ian

          Thanks for engaging, even if we don’t yet agree! I must be brief due to time pressure.

          My ‘dark times’ comment does not refer to the slightly raised annual death count due to Covid; it refers to the way the situation has been exploited politically, and the resulting far reaching consequences for individual liberty and even democracy itself. Our virtually empty House of Commons, along with draconian powers being granted to the government ‘on the nod’ should concern any defender of the liberties owned by ordinary people at the cost of much blood over the last millennium. Does anyone really think our present government is full of level-headed, morally principled servants of the public?

          I’m not against the use of vaccines but I do have concerns, along with many other people, that the current offerings for Covid have yet to run the test of time before they can be approved. They are already linked to more than usual amounts of side effects, including deaths; and long term consequences are simply unknowable at present (more so for the mRNA ones). Dr Robert Malone (who was the first to develop the mRNA technique) has voiced his concerns about the speed of rollout of this particular vaccine. So there is a serious balance of risks involved which implies individual assessment based on an honest offering of data to patients and, crucially, the individual circumstances of patients: a fit young person is in an entirely different situation from an elderly person with known medical problems.

          As far as keeping things in perspective goes, I agree. My dark times comment specifically referred to my own lifetime rather than the whole sweep of human history! But is it really suggested that our national reaction to Covid kept things in perspective? And how long ago was it since our national church last locked its doors to the people of England?

          As far as Ivermectin goes, none of us here can claim to be experts. However there is more than one opinion and a great deal of experience of its use from across the world. Here’s some written evidence on the issue from someone who cannot be dismissed as a crank or purveyor of ‘fake news’:

          My greatest concern, however, remains our current political rush into the kind of authoritarian governance which will be extremely hard to reverse. And it’s something that is being mirrored across most of the world’s democracies – in virtual lockstep. Should Christians be concerned about this issue? Does God have a view on it?

        • There are some very credible doctors such as Dr Pierre Kory who have used Ivermectin effectively. It has to asked why a lot of the arguments for alternative treatments for Covid 19 are being suppressed and censored. This website is worth a look https://covid19criticalcare.com/.

          • I am surprised by the forcefulness of the rebuttal. Surely more open-mindedness is called for in the present climate? Interested readers might go to the website flagged up by MikeW and add ‘videos-and-press/flccc-releases/flccc-alliance-statement-on-the-irregular-actions-of-public-health-agencies-and-the-widespread-disinformation-campaign-against-ivermectin/’ after the main address.

            There is a lot of respectable material on the web relating to this question. As the inclusion of more than one link sends the comment to the ‘awaiting moderation’ box, I will restrict myself to the following:
            The Swiss Policy Research site is well worth exploring in my judgement.

          • It very much confuses me why people who are, rightly, concerned about the lack of data on the long-term effects of vaccines which have only been in use for just over six months, can be so credulous when it comes to miraculous properties ascribed to off-label uses of worming drugs. Surely they should apply a bit of the strong scepticism which seems to be their best quality to such outlandish claims?

  7. No attempt was made in the article to compare the benefits of the games with the detriments. The Olympic Games is a massive event – it is hardly surprising that it’s possible to find negatives – the question is whether those negatives outweigh the positives.
    For me as a believer the Olympics are a quasi religious event – I am overwhelmed with appreciation for the extraordinary capacity of human beings and the uniqueness of each participant. For me it points to the glory of the creator. I am also amazed by the human qualities of character on display = I’m not sure I could put myself through training torture and then respond in the right spirit if my teammate steered my boat off the course – or if the wrong ruling of an umpire saw me knocked out of competition. That a large number of athletes under this kind of pressure remain committed to acting as if there are more important things than what they have tortured themselves to prepare for is remarkable.
    Some of the points made in the article mitigate each other. For example Ian you say that the bidding process is said to encourage corruption but then you also point out the huge cost of hosting the Games. These offset each other because the cost of holding the games ensures there will be less bidders – if there are less bidders there is less bribery and corruption. Because running the games is so expensive the trend at the moment is towards less bidders – for example Brisbane, Australia has just been announced the winning bidder for the summer Games in 2032 – they were the only city left in the bidding process. In such circumstances there is less incentive to bribe those making the decisions.
    You say Ian that the Games promote an unhealthy spirit of competition – however I think that you are missing the bigger story – that for most participants in the Games there is absolutely no chance of being in the top places – the competition is therefore with themselves. The bigger story of the Games is about outdoing oneself – it’s about excellence.
    And finally I am surprised that you would put forward the argument that the Games promote unhealthy eating and drinking. I can’t imagine an event which could generate a more positive view of physical activity leading to health than the Olympics. Children all around the world will enrol in sports inspired by what they see.
    The Olympic Games also usually (not during a pandemic) provides an evangelistic opportunity for Christians.
    Recently I commented on an article at Anglican Ink in which the author was pressing the idea that governments are using the pandemic to control people. The article argued that for example masks were a way to diminish our humanity. Views such as this will always get a popular hearing because who wants to be the one who looks naive – who wants to be the one who fails to see the worst motives in people? I think it’s easy to do that with something like the Olympics – but I encourage you Ian and those reading your article to resist the urge. I am not suggesting that we should be suppressing that which isn’t good – I am only seeking to argue for presenting the whole picture – certainly when asking the question of whether the Olympics is or is not a good thing.

    • Indeed. Nothing wrong with competition, whether in sports or banking. Regardless of the games, I thought the opening ceremony of the London Olympics was genuinely amazing, and showed the creativity of those involved. All power to Danny Boyle for his vision. A true spectacle. I dont think it will be bettered.

        • Nothing wrong with competition in banking? So you think our banking sector is working well then…?!

          As pointed out about, the big problem with the banking sector is too little competition (because changing your account to a different bank is a massive hassle, so banks can get away with all kinds of substandard practices that would have their customers deserting them in droves for their better competitors in other industries), not too much.

          • I’ve found changing current accounts is very easy and done within a week or so. Certainly a lot better than it used to be!

        • Perhaps you’ve had a bad experience from banks but I haven’t. Interest rates are due to the Bank of England, currently bad for savers but good for home owners on a mortgage. I think banks do recognise that customer service is important. I’ve noticed consumer sites like moneysavingsexpert although highlight rates often refers to the bad customer service, as appropriate, of the bank offering the good rate. In the end it comes down to consumer choice. And I’ve found no difference at all with building societies which are supposed to be all about their customers. All private companies compete with each other within their own sector, whether it’s the local shop or a bank. I don’t think bad customer service can be blamed on ‘competition’.


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