Is one Olympic host city the answer to the downsides of host city bidding?
The Olympics–who needs them? Chicago, Boston, and the state of Colorado said no thanks, as well as Hamburg and Budapest in Europe. Opposition to Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 continue to raise questions about the overall benefit of the Games to host cities, when economic growth for private profit is pitted against the socioeconomic good of the public at large.
For starters, the economic argument has long been controversial in itself. In a paper in The Sport Journal, the authors concluded that “The Benefits of Bidding and Hosting the Olympic Games Are Difficult to Justify Due to the Overall Costs” (see Analysis of costs of hosting Olympics). Andrew Zimbalist’s 2015 book, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, identified the 1970s as the turning point when the payoff for gambling on Olympic hosting began to drop below break-even. Zimbalist, a sports economist, used four case studies–Barcelona, Sochi, Rio, and London–to support his thesis that the costs of modern Olympic extravaganzas outrun tangible economic benefits in most cities. Los Angeles’s success in 1984 owed in part to the use of existing infrastructure rather than having to build all new facilities.
An article from the Council on Foreign Relations has a revealing graph illustrating the discrepancies between projected and final costs in eleven cities from 1996 through 2016. In most cases the final cost more than doubled the original estimate. So-called white elephants such as Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium incur maintenance costs that linger long after the initial construction – the “Bird’s Nest” costs $10 million a year to maintain and sits mostly unused. See Council on Foreign Relations addresses costs of Olympic Games.
Typically, the economic case for hosting rests on a pro-growth mentality, and the growth envisioned flows more to the benefit of private business than to local communities – particularly poorer communities displaced by the Olympic facilities and land speculation in the vicinity of the Olympic venue. Moreover, the promise of jobs from hosting the Olympics is undermined by the fact that most of those jobs are temporary–here today, gone tomorrow.
In Chicago and Boston, it was local opposition that killed the games. With Denver and the 1976 Winter Games, the initial pushback came not from within the city proper, but from surrounding counties that placed environmental, aesthetic, and lifestyle values above commercial interests. Their opposition then spread to disadvantaged groups in Denver itself, and eventually to the entire state. For details, see How Colorado fought the Denver Olympics. For details on Chicago, see Pros and cons of Chicago Olympic bid.
Reviews of the 2016 Rio Olympics have been mixed, but the consensus view is that the benefits went overwhelmingly to the private sector and not to the citizens of Rio de Janeiro. For a look back, read the ironically headlined, Rio’s Olympics Were a Raging Success! Really!
Activists’ opposition to the 2024 Paris Olympics and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics may have begun too late to keep the games out of their cities, but their actions have drawn attention once more to the inequities inherent in hosting the modern games.
We may assume that in the U.S., disadvantaged communities have more leverage than they did in Rio. Yet the question remains, in whatever country: how many public resources does a sporting event deserve, when the impact on the public is so risky?
Is the prestige of hosting the Olympic Games worth the financial and social costs? This latter question often gets a yes, when put to developing countries that hope to get a star on the world map. As in Rio. Then reality sinks in.
Recent history strengthens the case for holding the Olympics permanently in one city, such as Athens. That would not only preclude the potential for corruption that raises its ugly head during every bidding war (FIFA’s World Cup bidding scandal is a notorious case), but would also avoid massive social disruptions that come from creating an Olympic venue in a new city every four years.
Calls for holding the Olympics permanently in one city have been made before and gotten no traction. Is this time different, with so many cities rejecting the Olympics based on more and more evidence of negative impacts?
For more on the resistance to LA 2028, see Opposition to the Olympics in American Cities in Play the Game.