The Olympic games stands as an event representing opportunity, prosperity, and collaboration. However, only a handful of countries have had the privilege to host such a unique event. In fact, only 23 countries of the world's 195 countries have had the opportunity to host the games. Countries worldwide seek to host the games, and for good reason. They competitively pursue the opportunity to host the Olympic Games in order to take advantage of the plethora of opportunities that come with hosting. The purported benefits are numerous, from increases in tourism, to an indirect increase in GDP, to an increased quality of life for the host country’s citizens. However, with enormous cost associated with hosting, these purported benefits are put into question. Did the host countries receive the benefit that they were expecting? How do the games impact the citizens? Most importantly, is it even worth it?
As demonstrated through the three most recent Summer Olympics (Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Rio 2016), it is evident that the perceived benefits of hosting the olympic games were temporary and the host countries were worse off in the long run. The marginal and temporary nature of these benefits often do not offset the negative after-effects to the social, economic and infrastructural fabric of the host nation, and usually leave these nations in a stagnant or worse condition prior to hosting.
The Broken Promises of Social Change
Promises of social change are often associated with hosting the Olympic Games. Citizens often believe that the games will provide an opportunity for change. In fact, host countries often promise social change as an integral component of their Olympic proposal so as to appeal to the citizens.. Examples of promises that have been integrated into previous Olympic bids include lowering pollution levels, cleaner water and affordable housing. However, more often than not, governments either underdeliver on such promises or completely fail to fulfill them.
The Temporary Environmental Fixes
The proposal to focus on environmental factors such as clean water and pollution levels have historically been celebrated by Olympic selection committees. Brazil and China’s bids, for the 2008 and 2016 Summer Games respectively, required the countries to lower their levels of water and air pollution in order for the Games to be hosted in a safe environment. These were promises that both countries agreed upon eagerly. The push for these changes were met with great celebration as both nations faced a great push from their populations to deal with these environmental issues. However, neither nation took the steps necessary to ensure that their targets were met. In fact, both countries chose to implement temporary solutions that undermined their promise to their citizens.
Brazil, for example, proposed to rebuild the city’s entire sewage system, with an aim to have 80% of waterways and sewage systems filtered out. This turned out to be a mandatory target as their waterways needed to be functioning at levels that were safe enough for water events, such as rowing, by the time the Games began. However, only temporary emergency fixes were implemented. These measures included having labourers fish out floating pieces of garbage, and constructing barriers over the larger canals feeding into the harbour where the water events were being hosted. This caused many concerns among the citizens as the initial promise was to build a new sewage system but there were no efforts by the government to pursue this plan. Even the use of alternative measures such as biodigesters, dome-shaped water treaters, showed the lack of dedication from the government to fulfill their promises. Biodigesters, for example, cost about a sixth of the cost of creating a whole new sewage system. Not only did this option demonstrate that the government was “cheaping out” on building a new system, but the biodigesters cost the citizens a great amount of inconvenience and cost. The incomplete promise of the government to pay for the new sewage system caused an uproar amongst the citizens as citizens were paying a large portion of their income for a temporary fix.
These temporary fixes were the same approach taken by the Chinese government in the city of Beijing, which at the time was nicknamed “Grey-jing” because of the level of air pollution in the city. Integrated into their Olympic bid was a requirement to lower air pollution levels as it posed a threat to the marathon, triathlon and open water swimming events. This proposal was well received as the games provided the opportunity for the government to be held accountable for the country's dangerous levels of pollution, which were 200% above the threshold outlined by the World Health Organization. However, changes in the city were not heavily enforced and within a month of the Games, the levels of air pollution still had not reached promised levels. This resulted in the mandatory closing of factories and construction sites, as well as the removal of over a million cars from the roads. These actions, however, were only used as emergency measures as the pollution levels were still 13% above the national benchmark 48 hours prior to the Games, and still more than double the World Health Organisation benchmark. The late last minute actions by the Beijing government demonstrates that there were no real efforts in the years leading up to the Games to lower pollution levels. Evidently, the measures were only enacted due to the requirements necessary to host the Games and not to ensure that the levels of pollution were at a safe level for the citizens on a daily basis. Unsurprisingly, once the Olympics were over, the pollution levels returned back to where they once were.
Although host countries tend to promise social change by addressing environmental issues, often these promises are not fulfilled. In attempts to salvage their promises, temporary fixes such as biodigesters and temporary shutdowns are implemented. The temporary fixes are indicative of the fact that governments are solely promising these "benefits" so that they can win their Olympic bids and appease their citizens. It is clear, however, that their main priority is not their citizens.
Housing: Displacement and Cost of Living
Furthermore, the Olympics Games often cause the displacement of lower income citizens resulting in homelessness, job loss, and an increased cost of living. For the Beijing, London, and Rio Games, all these host cities experienced great troubles with managing the issues surrounding housing and accommodations in the city prior and post-Games.
In Beijing and Rio, in order to make room for the stadiums that were to be built, many residents had to be displaced. While both countries mentioned that compensation would be provided to these citizens, this was only to a portion of the population being displaced. In Beijing, approximately 1.5 million people were displaced, most of which were from the lower class. While there was a compensation program named the “Olympic Relocation Programme”, only approximately 6,000 citizens were compensated for being displaced. This program was a demonstrated attempt by the Beijing government to combat the criticism of displacement, but turned out to be merely a ploy to protect their public image prior to the games. In Brazil, there were similar circumstances as 77,000 citizens from Rio’s slums were displaced. In a similar fashion to those in Brazil, only the ones who owned small businesses and more expensive real estate were compensated while the lower income citizens were merely displaced. This large displacement resulted in increasing levels of homelessness and unemployment due to business ventures also being leveled and displaced. It is evident that although the host countries wanted to reassure the public that the most ethical steps were taken in making room for the stadiums to be built, the amount of compensation paid out to each citizen being displaced was much lower, or nonexistent, for the majority of the displaced.
This issue was not exclusive to China and Brazil, who are still considered developing nations, but also London. The condos to create the Olympic Village were set to become affordable housing in the areas surrounding the Olympic venues after the games. The promise was that 50% of the housing would be subsidized to become affordable housing in these newly upgraded neighbourhoods. However, only 19% at the end was converted into affordable housing overall. The rest of the housing was sold to a Qatari real estate company. However, the issues were much deeper than just the availability of affordable housing in London. Due to the improvements that had occurred around the stadium, such as the opening of luxury stores and the upgrades to the roads and transportation systems, the cost of living in London increased significantly. Prior to the construction and upgrades to the neighborhood surrounding the newly bought- West Ham stadium, the minimum household income rested comfortably at 29 thousand pounds and it allowed a family to have a simple two-bedroom apartment.Now, the minimum household income was increased to 43 thousand (representing a 48% jump) for the same two-bedroom apartment. Regardless of the intention, the dichotomy of attempting to provide affordable housing while also increasing the cost of living by 48% not only nullifies their original intentions, but also further hinders the economic fabric of the city. As a result, the attempts to provide the citizens of London with affordable housing in addition to elevating the London neighbourhoods demonstrated conflicting goals that ultimately made the lives of the citizens more difficult.
While the consideration of compensation and the potential for affordable housing were great promises to increase the quality of life of lower income populations, these promises to provide social change resulted in further inconvenience instead. There was failure on the part of the host countries to fulfill their promises and to anticipate the impacts of their decisions.. Not meeting quota targets on available housing, not compensating the entirety of the population being displaced and increasing the cost of living in areas they already resided not only deprived the citizens from benefits they were promised but also took away the comfortable living standards they already had.
After the grandeur of the Olympic subsides from the host cities, the reality of the economic impact starts to settle. When analyzing the games through the lense of economic impact, the short term benefits become quite apparent, as well as the long term costs.
A recent study by economists Scott Holladay and Stephen Billing from the University of North Carolina and University of Tennessee-Knoxville respectively, indicated that there was no long term GDP impact of hosting the Olympic games. As a viewer, while the Olympic games seem to be larger than life, it usually represents a minute if not insubstantial slice of the host country’s entire GDP. Ultimately, the GDP growth attributed to the Olympic games is rendered insubstantial due to the impact of larger, ongoing macroeconomic events. It was estimated that in the four years leading up to the Beijing Olympics, $40 billion was spent on the games while $3.6 billion was brought in.
Economists advise that based on the scale of China’s economy, and the fact that leading up to the games, their GDP growth was impressively in the double digits, the Olympic-related change was insignificant. Furthermore, regardless of Beijing hosting the games, over the years their average contribution to the nation’s GDP is less than 3%. Rio faced a similar fate as well which was heavily influenced by their already weakened economic state leading up to the games. A federal $900 million bail-out was provided to Rio after they declared a financial state of emergency, yet the uncertainty of the economic condition was still felt as 60% of Brazilians believed that the games would cause more harm than good. The Rio Olympics final cost came to $20 billion while only generating around $3 billion in revenue. This has put the state of Rio in debt with the federal government for over $30 billion. This deepened the federal government’s budget that was already running on an annual deficit to about 10% of Brazil’s GDP. From the two different cases of Beijing and Rio games we are able to see that the games contribution to GDP is close to non-existent in a best case scenario and could lead to heavy debt in other cases.
Employment is another point of contention as host cities often plan on significantly reducing unemployment rates. For the London Olympics, at the forefront of their mission, was the promise of increasing employment in the East London area that was struggling with rising unemployment rates for years. That being said, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development released a study that found that the majority of Olympics construction jobs typically go to workers who are already employed. The jobs that are created are also usually temporary, and as a result provide little value aside from immediate job market stimulation . This was observed during the London games as well, as out of the 48,000 temporary jobs that were created only 10% went to people who were previously unemployed. This meant that despite the strong efforts, London's unemployment remained at 8.9% with the youth unemployment rate specifically, continuing to rise. When it came to the 2016 Rio games, the prevalent unemployment in the city, coupled with the game’s extensive costs made for a precarious situation, prevented the government from being able to afford compensation for public employees. This also translated into a drop in post-Games employment and little to no long-term employment benefits. Overall, the outlook seems bleak when it comes to the employment plans put in place by host cities. While there has been greater initiative from host cities to establish sustainable employment programs, the results have been weak because of the inevitably temporary nature of Olympic related jobs and economic instability. From the lack of diligence and mismanagement on the organizing committee’s part, to the tumultuous job markets and massive government debt, the promise of Olympic employment disappears.
Tourism is a factor that impacts the two previous points as an increase in tourism should translate to a higher employment, and thus an increased GDP. However, studies suggest year-over-year tourism levels actually decrease during the year relative to the prior year. Furthermore, in cases of increases in tourism, there tended to be negligible impact in the long run. Taking a look at the last three summer Olympics, only the Rio 2016 Olympics helped the total tourist arrival increase as Brazil experienced a historic high of 6.546 million tourists. During London's 2012 Games, the UK experienced a decrease of 180,000 tourists during the games compared to the same period in 2011. The same could be said for Beijing 2008 games as foreign visitors to Beijing in August actually declined 7% to 389,000 people. Similarly, the total number of visitors to China saw a drop in 2008 to 130.02 million from 131.87 million. These figures make it clear that countries’ hopes of increased tourism are marginal at best, and negative on average.
Infrastructure: Necessary or White Elephant?
When it comes to infrastructure, host countries often construct White Elephant venues in order to create legacies for their cities. This often involves large, flashy expenditures that do not have any practical value or long term benefit. However, the Legacy of the White Elephant venues in Olympic host countries has been a concern over the past several Olympics as the plan is always about legacy to the outside world and not about the actual benefits these expenditures bring to the cities or the citizens. For example, the Maracana Stadium ($500 million) and the Bird Nest Stadium in chart ($428 million). In response to the Legacy of the White Elephant, host countries now actively attempt to build stadiums with value beyond the Olympics. This attempt has been proven to be simply an attempt, however, as many of these venues do have proposed “plans” following the Games but have not demonstrated any particular value to compensate for the funds necessary to build them. The reality of maintenance costs for these “legacy attempts” has only resulted in national debt, and deteriorating stadiums, further hindering the host country in the long run. In other words, despite the funds poured into creating an Olympic legacy, the repercussions of such grandiose stadiums in the long run far outweigh the benefits.
While the construction costs of the venues caused a great burden to the host cities, it is the maintenance costs that continued after the Games that really affected the host countries’ legacy plans. A prime example was the electricity costs for running the Maracana Stadium during and after the Rio Olympics. The electric bill was so expensive that the consequences began prior to the Games’ conclusion as during the closing ceremonies, the electric company shut off the power because the government was behind $1 million USD in electric payments. These costs did not stop simply at the electric costs but also the grounds maintenance as well, such as gardening. Following the games, the Olympic Village (and Maracana Stadium) that was supposed to be transformed into affordable housing and a beautiful public park to compensate for the thousands who were displaced, quickly became infested with rats, overrun with waste, and completely abandoned. With quickly increasing costs, and numerous unpaid government workers, a bailout was eventually needed by Rio from the Brazilian government.
This is not exclusive to Brazil as the exact scenario occurred with the Bird Nest Stadium in Beijing 8 years prior. With the Bird Nest Stadium taking $11 million to maintain per year, the stadium quickly became vacant. The port where the open-water events occurred became full of garbage and the grounds that were meticulously groomed for tourists were completely deserted. The costs of maintenance were also extremely high for the majority of other venues constructed solely for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many also became unkept due to limited engagement by locals at these venues to compensate for the on-going maintenance costs necessary at these state of the art stadiums. Despite the grandiosity of these venues at the height of the Olympics, it is difficult to identify how these unkept, unmaintained, unused venues have benefited the respective host country.
The biggest concern of the White Elephant theory is that in addition to the associated costs, these venues would not be used beyond the Olympics. Both the Bird Nest Stadium and Maracana Stadiums were unable to find opportunities to consistently bring in revenue to offset their construction costs. So much so that the most recent plan for the Bird Nest Stadium is to host the 2024 Winter Olympics so that the venues could be reused. While many were set to become hosting grounds for future events or to be converted into community centers and schools, the majority of these conversions did not occur. With the high construction and maintenance costs of the stadiums, there were little funds left over to convert these venues for use by local communities. Sources have mentioned that the London Olympics were the exception to the White Elephant theory but looking at their legacy plans, they were on the same plain as Rio and Beijing. While the Queen Elizabeth stadium was bought to be the new West Ham Football club stadium, the costs incurred in transforming it into a football stadium resulted in a continuous loss of upwards to 24 million pounds per year. Furthermore, tickets and subscriptions for these venues began rising to compensate for the construction and renovations costs, compounding on already increasing costs of living..
Although countries have attempted to mitigate the risk of creating White Elephant venues when building their Olympic Legacies, there is very little to suggest that these countries benefit from any legacy at all. The interplay between the temporary beauty of Olympic venues and the impracticality of these venues after the Games personify the White Elephant mentality during the Olympics. The contingency plans put in place were poorly executed and failed to create sustainable stadiums, all for the pursuit of a temporary Olympic “legacy”.
To state there were no benefits reaped at all during these Summer Olympics would be completely inaccurate. However, the extent to which the host nation truly benefited from these Olympics is minute compared to the accompanying time and costs. A serious analysis of the previous three Summer Olympics, puts into question the notoriety associated with hosting the Olympics. With the upcoming Tokyo Summer Games, these questions must be considered. Although assumptions can be made, perhaps these Games won’t fall into the trap of the pursuit of legacy.