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