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.