WASHINGTON, July 27, 2012 — The Olympics are an extravagant, amazing spectacle. Hundreds of millions of people watch them. The riches and prestige they bring their hosts must be worth the huge amounts spent trying to win them and the colossal amounts spent hosting them, mustn’t they?
No. It’s money badly spent. The Olympics are an exploding cigar, a Mona Lisa with a moustache, a giant wood horse full of grief. They’re a gift from Greeks. It’s time to send the spectacle packing back to Greece, for good.
The London Olympics are projected to cost about $19 billion, not counting lost tourism, lost opportunities, and tempers shredded by 30-mile traffic jams. The Beijing Olympics cost over $40 billion. The Montreal Olympics (1976) cost less than that, but it took that city 30 years to finally pay off the debt. The Nagano Winter Olympics (1998) were so expensive that government officials destroyed their records rather than admit how much over-budget they went.
The Olympics are a money pit for their hosts. Organizing committees and local politicians always underestimate the costs. If they presented honest estimates, citizens would reject the honor and throw Olympic boosters out of office. The Athens Olympics (2004) cost a ruinous two-and-a-half times the original $6 billion estimate, and the Vancouver Olympics (2010), originally budgeted at $165 million, ended up costing an estimated seven times that. As for London, the original budget was £2.3 billion (about $4 billion); that budget has quintupled.
If the estimated costs of an Olympics are always understated, the estimated benefits are always overstated. When Chicago bid on the Olympics, they counted as a benefit all the tourists who would ordinarily visit Chicago anyway. They ignored all the tourists who would stay away to avoid the expected Olympic madness (traffic jams, overbooked hotels, mobbed restaurants) and counted each projected Olympic visitor as a net gain.
The evidence from other international sporting events is that the net impact on tourism is close to zero. Many Olympic visitors rescheduled planned visits, and the visitors who didn’t substituted for tourists who decided to stay away. That means for hotels, restaurants, and other tourism related businesses that the Olympics are usually no big deal. Add in higher taxes to pay for them, and the Olympics turn into a loser for local businesses.
Organizing committees talk glowingly of new infrastructure - velodromes, natatoriums, light rail and communications. Some of that infrastructure is a white elephant. Athens has yet to find much use for its velodrome, and the bicycling events it attracts (as far as I can tell, none so far) don’t pay for the structure’s upkeep. Other infrastructure could have been built anyway, had the citizens really wanted it. That it wasn’t suggests that money spent for Olympics infrastructure is simply taken away from other projects. You get a natatorium and give up a hospital and five city pools. You get a new metro line to an Olympic venue and give up new sewers in your suburbs. You get more security around Olympic venues and give up new fire stations elsewhere.
And then there’s the corruption of the IOC. That pack of thieves makes Congress look as pure as slightly used snow. In addition to the tens of millions a city will spend to spruce itself up and look nice for its Olympic bid, it fetes a band of international mooches in its best hotels and offers them all sorts of goodies on the side. Members of the IOC wander around the world like royalty while city politicians beg for the honor of emptying city coffers for the Olympics.
The Olympics are a wonderful spectacle. Most of us don’t want them to go away. On the other hand, if you’re smart you want them in someone else’s back yard. What’s the solution? Settle them in one spot: Greece.
If the Olympics had a permanent venue, there would be no last minute dashes to build villages for the athletes. There would be no need to spend billions on new stadiums in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Seoul, stadiums that do little to improve life for locals once the Olympics have gone. Olympic security and logistics wouldn’t have to be reinvented every four years, a new learning curve established. All the activities that support the games could be made routine.
Keeping the Olympics in Greece would reduce the political posturing that sometimes surrounds the games. The Berlin Olympics (1936) were a Nazi showcase designed to help legitimize the regime. The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics (1980), the USSR reciprocated by boycotting Los Angeles (1984). Holding the Olympics in the U.S. comes with America’s problematic relations with some other countries, and politics is front and center in places like China, Russia, and Korea. A Greek Olympics might involve problems with Macedonia and Turkey, but as a general rule those problems will be minor.
(The Winter Olympics can reside permanently in New Zealand or Canada, both of them politically inoffensive to most of the world.)
The first Olympics were held in Greece. Let the modern Olympics stay there. The IOC would hate that. There would be no huge new building sporting the Olympics logo going up in new cities around the world, no more hob-nobbing with queens and presidents, but that’s not what the Olympics are about.
They’re about the athletes.
Keep the Olympics in Greece. When all the rest of it fades into the background and routine, all that’s left to focus on are the athletes. There will still be controversies (don’t like American uniforms made in China? The first Olympics were in the nude; let’s just dispense with the uniforms), but they’ll be minimized. Let the Olympics be about their motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius — “faster, higher, stronger” — not about the IOC, national pride, and ruinous public works.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He loves gymnastics, and thinks it should be banned from the Olympics. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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