Why do we still have the Olympics, in reality? (Also, goddamn it costs a lot.)

Charles Lane over at The Washington Post had a good article recently about the Olympics — and namely, why-in-the-hell-exactly-we-still-do-this-thing-on-the-regular. I’m inclined to agree. Sochi has been beset with problems, including:

Sochi is going to cost around $50 billion, which is four times what Putin said it would cost. Is it worth it?

There are two basic sides to the issue: essentially, those for the Olympics argue that it creates world unity (an impossible concept, but in ideal terms, it’s a beautiful idea) and can really help draw attention and prestige to a country/area (that’s essentially the premise of the Netflix show Lilyhammer, as in, that’s why the main character goes there — he ‘fell in love with it’ via the 1994 Olympics). You hear words like honor, competition, prestige, can’t do anything like hosting the Olympics when it comes to your national brand, etc. Those are the pro arguments.

Con side: it costs a ton of money (see above) and can cripple infrastructure for years, and/or other things can fall by the wayside because of the money you spent on the Olympics. You get tourist money (hopefully) and tax windfall, but … it’s actually probably better to bid for the Games and lose. Here’s Freakonomics to explain:

So these cities, they need to send out two different signals at the same time. So to the International Olympics Committee, they want to look rich. They want to show off the amazing facilities they’re going to build. But back home they want to appear frugal, to show off that there will be plenty of money left over after they build everything. The friction lies between those two signals.

And then:

You want to signal something: We’re a world-class city. One way you could do it is to bid for the Olympics. Say it costs us probably, all things considered, $80 to $100 million to bid. But then you want to lose.

The Economist has gone into this too. They talk about some of the same “what happens after the party is over” elements:

Tourism may help to offset the expense, but a spike in arrivals is not guaranteed: Beijing saw a drop in hotel bookings during its Olympic summer. And the chance to spruce up a city sometimes ends up creating eyesores instead. Some of Greece’s costly stadiums now look as run-down as the Parthenon (and have fewer visitors).

One famous example is Olympic Stadium in Montreal, which took roughly 30 years to pay off after the 1976 Games.

The Rio 2016 budget is currently delayed, but it’s looking like it will balloon.

I get why we have the Olympics overall — sense of national pride, world competition, perceived unity — but it seems like the entire process is a bit (a) corrupt and (b) a cash suck. It draws ‘the world’ (i.e. richer tourists) to a location for a week or two, but four years later, that place still looks like a bigger train wreck than Instagram on Halloween night. If you’re doing a straight cost-benefit, I’m not sure it’s worth it for any major city — even a city/area that believes it needs to ’emerge on the world stage,’ i.e. Sochi and Russia — to host this thing. I think we still need the Olympics as a concept, but … I’m not sure any national leader should be actively thinking about getting into bed with the IOC for the next few bids.

FWIW, here’s the broader ideals of the Olympics when it was revived for the modern age:

Coubertin’s advocacy for the Games centred on a number of ideals about sport. He believed that the early ancient Olympics encouraged competition among amateur rather than professional athletes, and saw value in that. The ancient practice of a sacred truce in association with the Games might have modern implications, giving the Olympics a role in promoting peace. This role was reinforced in Coubertin’s mind by the tendency of athletic competition to promote understanding across cultures, thereby lessening the dangers of war. In addition, he saw the Games as important in advocating his philosophical ideal for athletic competition: that the competition itself, the struggle to overcome one’s opponent, was more important than winning.[26] Coubertin expressed this ideal thus:

L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

I do believe we need peace and unity — I mean, who doesn’t? — but the cost is questionable, especially when considering the current state of global inequality.

Ted Bauer


  1. I love the Olympics but agree they can be a bit of a boondoggle. How’s SLC doing 12 yrs later? Not sure, since I refuse to go back to Utah.

    The modern games also have a very sketchy track record when it comes to suppressing nations’ warlike tendencies…nonstop war around the globe ever since ol Coubertin for some run for his pet project.

  2. Also, adapting idea that I’ve seen from Bill Simmons and others, we should move the Olympics & World Cup from every four years every three years, and split up the winter/summer games. That way every single year we have either an Olympics or a World Cup. In conjunction with this, streamline the games and trim out a lot of fat, so that they’re not as expensive to host.

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