Hosting the Olympic Games – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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On the left is a 2004 photo of Athens’ Olympic Stadium during the Games. On the right is a Feb. 18, 2012 photo of the same stadium fallen into disuse.
Source: Scott Stump and Eun Kyung Kim, “What Happens to Olympic Venues after the Torch Goes Out,” today.com, Feb. 22, 2014

The 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan, were originally scheduled to begin on July 24, but have been postponed due to COVID-19 (coronavirus) concerns. A Mar. 24, 2020 joint statement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated, “The IOC president and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games… must be rescheduled… to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.” The IOC announced the Tokyo Summer Games will be played be July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021 and will still be referred to as Tokyo 2020.

This is the first time the Olympics have been rescheduled in peacetime. The Games were previously canceled in 1916, 1940, and 1944 due to world wars. [54][55] The host cities for four future Games have already been selected: Beijing Winter 2022, Paris Summer 2024, Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo (Italy) Winter 2026, and Los Angeles Summer 2028. [1][2] The International Olympic Committee selects a host for each Games from the cities that remain after a multi-step bidding process that gauges public support and evaluates the vision and planning proposed by each city, among other factors. [48][49]

People who say the Olympic Games are an overall benefit to their host countries and cities state that the Games increase valuable tourism, which can boost local economies; create a sense of national pride; and increase a country’s global trade and stature. People who say the Olympic Games are not an overall benefit to their host countries and cities state that the Games are a financial drain on host cities; force host cities to create expensive infrastructure and buildings that fall into disuse; and displace and burden residents of the host country and city.

Are the Olympic Games an Overall Benefit for Their Host Countries and Cities?

Pro 1

The Olympics increase valuable tourism, which can boost local economies.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games had a global audience of five billion with the Games broadcast in 200 countries. [3] More than 56% of foreign visitors to Brazil for the 2016 Games were new visitors and Brazil set tourism records with 6.6 million foreign tourists and $6.2 billion dollars. [4][5] England welcomed more than one visitor every second in June 2013 after the 2012 London Summer Olympics, a 12% increase over 2012. [6] Those tourists also spent more: $2.57 billion in June (a 13% increase) and $12.1 billion in the first half of 2013. [6]

The 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics made a profit, helping to revitalize the city and transform it from an “industrial backwater” into the third best city in Europe, according to Travel + Leisure magazine. [7][8][9] The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles netted the city a $215 million operating surplus and $289 million in broadcasting fees. [10] The Olympics brought a record 43.2 million tourists to Los Angeles County that year, an increase of 9.3% over 1983. [50]

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Pro 2

The Olympics increase a host country's global trade and stature.

Host countries tend to be invited to prestigious global economic organizations. According to economics professors Robert A. Baade, PhD, and Victor A. Matheson, PhD, “the very act of bidding [for the Games] serves as a credible signal that a country is committing itself to trade liberalization that will permanently increase trade flows.” [9] China negotiated with the World Trade Organization, opening trade for the country, after being awarded the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. [14]

After a successful 1955 bid for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy joined the United Nations and began the Messina negotiations that led to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC). [14] The 1964 Tokyo Summer Games led to Japan’s entry into the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the OECD. [14] The 1968 Summer Olympics allowed Mexico to make “the leap into the ranks of industrialized nations,” according to Dr. David Goldblatt, sociologist and sports writer. [15] Spain joined the EEC within a year of the 1986 Barcelona Summer Olympics. [14] Korea’s political liberalization coincided with winning the bid for the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. [14] One economic study found that “the Olympic effect is robust; hosting the games tends to increase a country’s openness substantively and permanently.” [14]

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Pro 3

The Olympics create a sense of national pride.

According to a global poll, a majority of people in 18 of 21 countries stated their nations’ performance at the Olympics was “important to their national pride,” including 91% of Kenyans, 86% of Filipinos, and 84% of Turks. [11] Roger Bannister, the first person to ever run a mile in under four minutes and a 1952 Helskinki Olympian, stated of his country’s performance at the 2012 London Summer Games: “Team G[reat] B[ritain]’s heroic success seems to have reawoken in us our sense of national pride… a realisation perhaps that, as a people, we have the ability, the drive and the determination to be great.” [12]

Moorad Choudhry, MBA, PhD, Treasurer of the Corporate Banking Division of the Royal Bank of Scotland, stated, “A genuine feel-good factor [of hosting the Olympics] can be very positive for the economy, not just in terms of higher spending but also in productivity at work, which in turn boosts output.” [13] Lee Ji-seol, who lives in PyeongChang, said that fellow residents celebrated their selection as the 2018 Winter Games host city: “The entire town was out dancing.” [53]

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Con 1

The Olympics are a financial drain on host cities.

No Olympic Games since 1960 has come in under budget. [16] Bent Flyvbjerg, PhD, and Allison Stewart, MBA, both at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, stated that “in the Games the budget is more like a fictitious minimum that is consistently overspent.” [17] Each host city is responsible for these cost overruns, in addition to their original budgets. The average cost overrun for host cities from 1968 to 2010 was 252% for the Summer Olympics and 135% for the Winter, with the 1976 Montreal Summer Games running over the most by 796%. [17] Montreal’s 1976 cost overrun took 30 years to pay off, and the people of Quebec still pay $17 million a year to maintain Olympic Stadium, which is still without a roof 42 years later and also needs $300 million worth of repairs. [17][18][19]

The 2014 Sochi Games ran between $39 and $58 billion over the $12 billion budget, an amount that is more than spent on all previous winter Olympic games. [20] The 2004 Athens Summer Games’ 60% overrun worsened the 2007-2012 Greek financial crisis. [17][21][22]

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Con 2

The Olympics force host cities to create expensive infrastructure and buildings that fall into disuse.

Robert A. Baade, PhD, and Victor A. Matheson, PhD, Economic professors, stated, “host cities are often left with specialized sports infrastructure that has little use beyond the Games” and that the cities must maintain at great expense. [9] Many Olympic venues worldwide sit empty, rusted, overgrown with weeds, covered with graffiti, and filled with polluted water. [23] The $78 million Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Games was set for demolition before the 2018 Games even began. [24] Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Stadium will be demolished in 2019 in favor of a smaller, more useful venue. [25]

Bejing’s 2008 Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium costs the city $11 million a year to maintain, and the stadium that seats 91,000 mostly sits unused. [26][27] In Rio de Janeiro, the $700 million athletes village for the 2016 Games was turned into luxury apartments that are now “shuttered” and the Olympic Park is “basically vacant” after failing to attract a buyer. [23][28] Sofia Sakorafa, Greece MP and former Olympian, stated of the 2004 Athens Games venues, “We are left with installations that are rotting away because we don’t even have the money to maintain them. A lot of entrepreneurs and property developers got rich very quickly.” [29]

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Con 3

The Olympics displace and burden residents of the host country and city.

Bryan C. Clift, PhD, and Andrew Manley, PhD, lecturers at the University of Bath, stated, “To make way for Beijing’s 2008 Olympic infrastructure, an estimated 1.5m[illion] people were forcibly evicted from their homes with minimal compensation. The neighbourhoods were destroyed and residents removed to the outskirts of the city far from friends, family and places of work.” [30]

Residents near Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic Stadium, whose homes were set to be demolished, were forcibly removed in a “bloody confrontation between police and residents” that reportedly involved the use of rubber bullets and percussion grenades. [31] Lee Do-sung, a local restaurant owner, expressed concern about the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, “What good will a nicely managed global event really do for residents when we are struggling so much to make ends meet? What will the games even leave? Maybe only debt.” [32]

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Click for an Encyclopaedia Britannica video about the origins of the Olympic games.

ANCIENT OLYMPICS, 776 BC – 393 AD

The Olympic Games were first held in Olympia, Greece, in 776 BC as a religious festival to honor Zeus. The first Olympic Stadium was in an area thought to have been cleared when Zeus hurled down a lightning bolt. When not in use as a stadium for the Games the area (which never contained an actual building) was a wheat field. [1][33][34] The early games included sports for male athletes only such as pankration (a combination of boxing and wrestling with only two rules: no biting and no gouging), along with boxing, chariot racing, running, wrestling, and field events. [51] Paul Christesen, PhD, Professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, stated, “It is hard for us to exaggerate how important the Olympics were for the Greeks. The classic example is that when the Persians invaded Greece in the summer of 480 (BC) a lot of the Greek city states agreed that they would put together an allied army but they had a very hard time getting one together because so many people wanted to go to the Olympics. So, they actually had to delay putting the army together to defend the country against the Persians.” [51] The Games occurred every four years for 1,168 years from 776 BC to 393 AD, when they were ended by Emperor Theodosius I. [35]

A single luger competes in the PyeongChang Olympic venue.
Source: Republic of Korea, “Viessmann Luge WorldCup Men 06,” flickr.com, Feb. 19, 2017

MODERN OLYMPICS, 1896 – PRESENT

A French nobleman, Pierre de Coubertin, revived the Games after becoming interested in physical education. [36] The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in Apr. 1896 and included 241 athletes from 14 countries competing in 43 events. [52] The Games have been held since, with five canceled due to the World Wars. [37][38] The first modern Winter Games were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. [33] Beginning with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, Games were held every two years, alternating between Summer and Winter. [33]

The 2018 PyeongChang Games included 102 events across 15 sports, making the 2018 Winter Games the first to surpass 100 medal events. [39] Six new medals across four new events debuted: big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, mass start speed skating, and mixed team alpine skiing. [39]

A record number of over 90 countries competed, with Russia notably banned by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) for doping in prior Games, though Russian athletes were allowed to participate under the neutral Olympic flag. [40] Six countries made their Winter Games debut, including Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria (whose three female athletes were also the first ever Africans to compete in bobsled), and Singapore. [41][42][43][44][45][46]

PyeongChang sits about 80 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates South Korea from North Korea. 22 North Korean athletes, 15 women and 7 men, competed in ice hockey, ice skating, and skiing. North and South Korean athletes competed on a joint women’s hockey team under the Korea unification flag. [47]

Akuoma Omeoga, Seun Adigun, and Ngozi Onwumere are Nigeria and Africa’s first bobsled team to compete in the Olympics.
Source: Jacob Lauing, “Three Former Track Stars Created Nigeria’s First Bobsled Team,” mashable.com, Dec. 3, 2016

Footnotes:

  1. International Olympic Committee, “Olympic Games,” olympic.org (accessed Jan. 22, 2018)
  2. International Olympic Committee, “Passionate Start to Milano Cortina 2026’s Journey to Games,” olympic.org, Dec. 11, 2019
  3. Christina Settimi, “The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics: By the Numbers,” forbes.com, Aug. 5, 2016
  4. Greg Oates, “Brazil Tourism President on the Aftermath of Rio’s Olympic Games,” skift.com, Aug. 24, 2016
  5. Olympic Games, “Rio Unveils Wall of Champions as Brazil Reveals Record Tourist Boost from 2016 Games,” olympic.org, Jan. 11, 2017
  6. Nathalie Thomas, “UK Tourism Hits Record 12 Months after Olympics,” telegraph.co.uk, Aug. 15, 2013
  7. Adam Taylor, “How the Olympic Games Changed Barcelona Forever,” businessinsider.com, July 26, 2017
  8. Jesse Ashlock, “The Top 15 Cities in Europe,” travelandleisure.com, July 11, 2017
  9. Robert A. Baade and Victor A. Matheson, “Going for the Gold: The Economics of the Olympics,” aaeweb.org, Spring 2016
  10. James McBride, “The Economics of Hosting the Olympic Games,” cfr.org, July 20, 2016
  11. Jane Mower, “London 2012: Olympic Success Is Key to National Pride,” bbc.com, Jan. 1, 2012
  12. Roger Bannister, “These Remarkable Games Have Filled My Heart with Pride. It Is as if the Golden Age of My Youth Had Never Gone Away,” dailymail.co.uk, Aug. 13, 2012
  13. Moorad Choudhry, “The Olympic Effect: Good for the Economy,” cnbc.com, Aug. 7, 2012
  14. Andrew K. Rose and Mark M. Spiegel, “The Olympic Effect,” nber.org, Apr. 2009
  15. David Goldblatt, “It Wasn’t Always So Expensive to Host the Olympics. Here’s What Changed,” time.com, July 26, 2016
  16. Bent Flyvberg, Allison Stewart, and Alexander Budzier, “The Oxford Olympics Study 2016: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Games,” arxiv.org, July 2016
  17. Bent Flyvbjerg and Allison Stewart, “Olympic Proportions: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Olympics 1960-2012,” sbs.ox.ac.uk, June 2012
  18. Jack Todd, “The 40-Year Hangover: How the 1976 Olympics Nearly Broke Montreal,” theguardian, July 6, 2016
  19. Konrad Yakabuski, “Summer Olympics: 40 Years on, Quebeckers Are Still Footing the Bill,” theglobeandmail.com, Mar. 24, 2017
  20. Jasper Scherer and Audrey Shi, “Here Are the 7 Biggest Financial Disasters in Modern Olympic History,” fortune.com, Aug. 10, 2016
  21. AP, “Did 2004 Olympics Spark Greek Financial Crisis?,” cnbc.com, June 3, 2010
  22. Nick Malkoutzis, “How the 2004 Olympics Triggered Greece’s Decline,” bloomberg.com, Aug. 2, 2012
  23. Sam Belden, “What Abandoned Olympic Venues from around the World Look Like Today,” businessinsider.com, Aug. 3, 2017
  24. Kim Tong-Hyung, “As Olympics Near, South Korea Agonizes over Post-Games Costs,” apnews.com, Dec. 14, 2017
  25. Nick Zaccardi, “Sydney Olympic Stadium to Be Torn Down,” nbcsports.com, Nov. 27, 2017
  26. Owen Gibson, “Bird’s Nest Stands as an Empty Monument to China’s Magnificence,” theguardian.com, Aug. 22, 2015
  27. Louisa Lim, “China’s Post-Olympic Woe: How to Fill an Empty Nest,” npr.org, July 10, 2012
  28. Scott Davis, “Rio’s $700 Million Athletes Village Was Turned into Luxury Condos but Is Now Reportedly ‘Shuttered’ and 93% Vacant,” businessinsider.com, July 18, 2017
  29. Fiona Govan, “Greece’s Olympic Dream Has Turned into a Nightmare for Village Residents,” telegraph.co.uk, June 23, 2011
  30. Bryan C. Clift and Andrew Manley, “Five Reasons Why Your City Won’t Want to Host the Olympic Games,” theconversation.com, Jan. 11, 2016
  31. Jonathan Watts, “Forced Evictions in Rio Favela for 2016 Olympics Trigger Violent Clashes,” theguardian.com, June 3, 2015
  32. AP, “As Olympics Near, South Korea Agonizes over Post-Games Costs,” usatoday.com, Dec. 14, 2017
  33. Penn Museum, “The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games,” penn.museum (accessed Jan. 22, 2018)
  34. Michael Radou Mossou, “In Quest of the Olympic Spirit: The Olympic Flame,” huffingtonpost.com, Sep. 26, 2012
  35. Perseus Project, “Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Olympic Games,” perseus.tufts.edu (accessed Jan. 22, 2018)
  36. Robert McNamara, “The Founder of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin,” thoughtco.com, Mar. 17, 2017
  37. History.com, “The Olympic Games,” history.com, 2010
  38. Alex Gladu, “Have the Olympics Ever Been Canceled? Rio 2016 Looks Set to Go Ahead,” bustle.com, July 19, 2016
  39. Phil Haigh, “Winter Olympics Sports 2018: The 15 Sports and 102 Events on Display in Pyeongchang, South Korea,” metro.co.uk, Jan. 11, 2018
  40. Morgan Winsor, “Olympics 2018: Everything You Need to Know about the Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea,” abcnews.go.com, Jan. 8, 2018
  41. Brayden Yates, “USC Students First to Represent Ecuador in Olympic Snow,” sunshinecoastdaily.com, Dec. 23, 2017
  42. Wendy-Ann Clarke, “Eritrea’s First Winter Olympian Is from Alberta,” cbc.ca, Dec. 21, 2017
  43. Republic of Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Skier from Rahovec Will Represent Kosovo in ‘2018 Winter Olympics,'” mfa-ks.net (accessed Jan. 24, 2018)
  44. Yomi Kazeem, “Nigeria’s Bobsled Team Is already Winning even before the Winter Olympics Begin,” qz.com, Jan. 23, 2018
  45. Channel NewsAsia, “Skater Cheyenne Goh Qualifies for Winter Olympics, a First for Singapore,” channelnewsasia.com, Nov. 24, 2017
  46. Bernama, “PM Congratulates Julian Yee over Winter Olympics Qualifications,” nst.com, Oct. 1, 2017
  47. Laura Smith-Spark, “North Korean Athletes Will Compete at Winter Olympics,” cnn.com, Jan. 20, 2018
  48. Rachel Axon, “Future Olympic Bid Cities Could Find Process Less Expensive, Convoluted,” usatoday.com, Aug. 7, 2017
  49. International Olympic Committee, “Factsheet: Host City Election,” olympic.org, Nov. 2017
  50. Victoria McCargar, “Tourism Set Record in ’84, Thanks to Olympics,” latimes.com, May 26, 1985
  51. Olympic Games, “Welcome to the Ancient Olympic Games,” olympic.org (accessed Feb. 4, 2018)
  52. Olympic Games, “Modern Olympics – Athens 1896 First Modern Olympic Games,” olympic.org (accessed Feb. 4, 2018)
  53. Chow Sang-Hun, “Pyeongchang’s Winding Path From Obscurity to Olympics Fame,” nytimes.com, Feb. 3, 2018
  54. George Ramsay, “Japanese PM and IOC Chief Agree to Postpone 2020 Olympics until 2021,” cnn.com, Mar. 24, 2020
  55. Bill Chappell, “Tokyo 2020 Olympics Have a New Start Date: July of 2021,” npr.orf, Mar. 30, 2020