Who’d want to host the Olympics?

By Max Seddon
July 26, 2012

Londoners are greeting the Olympics with all the enthusiasm of a child awaiting a root canal. The government has warned those unable to book coinciding holidays not to travel anywhere beyond walking distance of home as Communist-style “Olympic lanes” whisk dignitaries past the interminable traffic the Games cause. During the Olympics, London will be run under a curious kind of corporate martial law. Thousands of troops will handle security to make up for private contractor G4S’s staffing “shambles”; missiles have been placed atop public housing; an Orwellian “brand police” is sweeping the city to ensure no businesses other than 11 official sponsors use words like “gold,” “silver,” “bronze” and even “London.”

Putting up with this misery is supposedly justified by the commercial windfall, tourist bonanza and enhanced prestige the Olympics create. One Tube station poster depicts a man who, having identified alternative transport routes, is jauntily reading a newspaper as he whizzes past an escalator logjammed with athletes: The headline is “London 2012 Games a huge success, save British economy.”

But as Wednesday’s woeful economic data confirmed Britain’s slide into a double-dip recession, it’s worth questioning whether hosting the Olympics is worth the $14.5 billion cost. In strict financial terms none ever actually make money. Some host cities have turned profits since Los Angeles was the first to do so in 1984, escaping the crippling public debt incurred by cities like Montreal and Vancouver. But, as a recent report by Goldman Sachs points out, “most countries … have treated the cost of constructing facilities and infrastructure, together with security and other ancillary costs, as being separate from the cost of running the Games themselves.”

In other words, it’s possible to declare an operating profit while incurring huge losses on major expenditures that may not be recovered for decades. Beijing trumpeted a $171 million profit made on operating costs, while neglecting to mention the $40 billion-dollar infrastructure buildup it made ahead of the 2008 Games. The $5 billion to $6 billion the London Olympics earn will not even begin to cover the cost of infrastructure and security alone. Even if it did, half of revenue is split among International Olympic Committee members.

Like many major sporting tournaments, the Olympic Games often create embarrassing white elephants. Beijing’s Bird’s Nest remains largely unused. The Olympic stadium in Montreal proved such a drag on city finances that the Quebec government imposed a $2 billion tobacco tax to help pay it off – and that took 30 years. Facilities often have no conceivable use beyond the two weeks of the Games, like Athens’ softball stadium and sailing marina. Since the world seems likely to remain in the economic doldrums for some time, chances of future facilities being purchased or converted are low: The London village already looks like a combination of a garish British seaside holiday resort and Pripyat, the Ukrainian ghost town abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster.

There’s even less evidence that the Olympics or other major sporting events drive tourism long term. Regular tourists are kept out for the duration of the tournament, and host cities are usually either known well enough to potential visitors and investors – London is probably more beholden to foreign capital than any other major Western city – or lack the attractions to make them a viable destination in the first place, like the Ukrainian mining town of Donetsk, host of several Euro 2012 soccer matches.

If anything, the Olympic spectacle is often so grotesque that it brings out the worst aspects of its hosts. London 2012 is exposing to the world traditional British foibles like nightmarish transport infrastructure, overzealous policing and failed privatization schemes. Beijing did the same for China’s aggressive nationalism and choking air pollution. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics will need a lot more than a Romneyesque crusade to shed the image of a rampantly corrupt Russia: One road has cost $7 billion, which Russian Esquire calculated was enough to cover the same 48-kilometer stretch with 9 centimeters of Louis Vuitton bags or 21 centimeters of foie gras.

The profligacy, draconian security and surveillance measures, and general contempt for ordinary citizens the Olympics bring seem more appropriate for a dictatorship than a dynamic Western democracy. That’s why we should hope the IOC takes a leaf out of FIFA’s playbook and holds future Games in repressive petrostates. For a start, the scrutiny of a major sporting tournament often puts pressure on repressive countries’ harsh laws. Ukraine’s soccer-fueled coming-out party was ruined by a Europe-wide ministerial boycott of the Euro 2012 matches it hosted this year, prompted by the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. Qatar will, in all likelihood, have to relax its views on public displays of homosexuality and alcohol consumption for the 2022 World Cup.

Conversely, the undesirable aspects of the Olympics are far better suited to countries that essentially have them in place already. Baku, Doha or Dubai – all bidding for the 2024 Games – would have no concerns about lavish budgets and would hardly have to beef up security beyond that of their extensive police states. Compared with competitors like New York or Paris, those cities would actually see an increase in international prestige and, with the right amenities, even tourism. The white elephants that plague most Olympic hosts are par for the course in the lands of half-empty resorts and half-finished skyscrapers.

This isn’t to say the Olympics aren’t worth having – they can make even sports that nobody usually watches, like the discus or curling, magically fascinating once every four years. But they’re certainly not worth the chaos and budgetary millstones they create in the world’s capitals. Rather than bring the mountain to Mohammed, we should hope the Olympic curse restricts itself to cities that already share its Ozymandian dream.

13 comments

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Odd thing about the Olympics: one city after the next look to “outdo” the predecessor. Unfortunately, with each iteration, that requires additional spending towards… all the flash, glamour, and incident prevention.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

I’ve seen several columnists comment on the prohibition in Arab countries, and I would like to offer my take on it.

First, this is not a religious issue (unless you take into account the extremist views held by 0.001% of muslims). The rules of Sharia (no alcoholic drinks, no intimate contact between non-mahram) apply to muslims, and muslims ONLY. There is no obligation at all in part of a muslim ruler to enforce this rule to non-muslims.

Here I would like to offer anecdotes from my homeland Malaysia where muslims are absolutely prohibited from buying or owning alcoholic drinks or else be prosecuted in court, yet non-muslims can readily access these beverages at any supermarkets or restaurants.

So I argue here that this is only a cultural issue. The Arabs (not Indian muslims, not Malaysian muslims, not Chinese muslims) has a culture of limiting public display of affection, forbidding scanty clothes, prohibition of alcoholic drinks and so on and so forth.

Now, how does this pertain to foreigners? May I ask you, would you strut around in Paris wearing a swastika armband and shouting “Heil der Fuhrer”? Would you go to New Delhi and start shooting cows with a hunting rifle? Would you go to Knoxville and start calling everyone “hillbillies” and “rednecks”?

Some people might, but most of us are taught manners as a child. When we visit a friend’s house, we never behave as if we are at home, even when the host said we should make ourselves comfortable. The guest and the host should respect each other or else things will get sticky fast.

Unless you are an (US of) American.

Posted by AliceCengal | Report as abusive

Which parts of the 2012 Olympic apparatus will remain as white elephants? Quick to point the finger at Beijing, you have not predicted the fall of London in specific terms. Security has not been the domain of dictatorships since 1989. You come from a very cynical starting point to consider that the Olympics are only held to drive tourism and state coffers. One does not throw a lavish party for one’s friends to make a sizeable profit in financial terms. You throw the party, because you know the guests will enjoy it, the more lavish the better. Lavish enough and you will be invited in return, you may even be introduced to the influential friend of your guest that you would be unable to court without their assistance. Even if this doesn’t happen, at least your children enjoyed it and managed to stave off cynicism to enjoy something that will only happen once before they become old and wise enough to pour scorn on any idea or event that has the potential to make the children proud of their parents rather than believing the scorn that their media friends insist on peddling.

Posted by dorkins | Report as abusive

@ AliceCengal

so we can all be amoral; truth only depends on the dictate of the imam/government/sultanate?

basic human rights are ……

the columnist was being sardonic and poking a stick at the ironies associated with hosting the olympics

back to malaysia, are indian muslims equal to the privileges of malay muslims, or is there a cultural rationale for racial discrimination?

http://www.imdiversity.com/villages/glob al/Global_News_Headlines/MalaysiaDiscrim ination.asp

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

AliceCengal, your point about “being taught manners” becomes quite diluted when you paint ALL Americans with the same insulting brush in the last sentence of your otherwise interesting comment.

Posted by 2pesos | Report as abusive

Moronic and ill-informed article. Infrastructure improvements alone make the games worthwhile. In the case of Beijing, do you think they care that Bird’s Nest doesn’t get much use? They have over a dozen ghost towns big enough to host 5m+ people and you’re worried about a stadium? Also, Vancouver’s games didn’t lose crushing amounts of money. There is about $1b in property (the Olympic village) that is still on the book because they haven’t entirely been sold to the public. Even with a haircut likely, the biggest the loss would be in $200m. You think CDNs would pay $200m again to have a redo of the men’s hockey final and after-party? YUP, SURE WOULD!

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Summer in Greece and Winter in Norway every time. Then the costs will be minimal and simple upgrades can be made.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

They are WAY too corporate now – I totally ignore all the ‘sponsors’ – they only care about their quarterly profits anyway…

I might watch some of the games, but every time, it’s much less than before – anything that gets ‘corporate’ looses it’s luster quick.

Posted by Overcast451 | Report as abusive

Who’d want to watch them? As my father once told me after a trip to Europe, seen one fjord or castle ruin, you’ve seen them all. And British food is abysmal.

Posted by REMant | Report as abusive

[...] Who'd want to host the Olympics? | The Great Debate This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged commercial, corporate-martial, curious-kind, [...]

for Remant, I am happy that people like you dont want to come to Europe, being UK or anywhere else, we dont need arrogant ignorants like you.

I think this article miss a big point, in many cases hosting the Olympics is a great way to bring youngsters closer to sports with great social and economics benefits.
it s also a shame that the organizers missed that point too with tickets far too expensive and too many tickets allocated to corporate entertainement.

Posted by gb69 | Report as abusive

I think the Olympics have gone too far away from the concept, and way too many events have been added. In addition there are too many competitors entered in many of the events that just don’t beyond in the competition at that level.

Posted by Baxter1939 | Report as abusive

I think the Olympics have gone too far away from the concept, and way too many events have been added. In addition there are too many competitors entered in many of the events that just don’t beyond in the competition at that level.

Posted by Baxter1939 | Report as abusive

[...] Who’d want to host the Olympics? [...]

“Spandy Andy bellyflops into the fountain outside Buckingham Palace in a tiny budgy smuggler: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXd3ht3xD eY“

Posted by xhyryxza | Report as abusive