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Olympic Games: Why cities are snubbing the ‘greatest show on Earth’

Both the summer and winter versions of the Olympic Games are multi-billion dollar spectacles that bring together the world’s top athletes and draw masses of media coverage.

So when residents in the Canadian city of Calgary voted on whether to bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics last week, you might have expected an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

But instead their verdict was clear: thanks, but no thanks. Their rejection, motivated by fears about high costs and questions about the economic benefits, came after three other cities all withdrew from bidding earlier this year.

This is part of a bigger problem that experts say could threaten the very future of the Olympic Games: fewer and fewer cities around the world want to play host.

Just consider the numbers: the 2004 Summer Games, which were ultimately held in Athens, attracted 11 bids but the 2024 event garnered just two.

So what’s behind this trend? Chris Dempsey knows more than most about why there is increasing scepticism.

print legend Usain Bolt with Brazilian dancers during the athlete’s village opening ceremony. Photo/AFP

He spearheaded the opposition to Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, a movement that started in his living room in early 2013 after a conversation with some friends.

“We saw that a group of very wealthy and powerful [people] had gotten together and decided that a bid would be a good thing for Boston,” he says. “But we were concerned about the cost.”

“At first, the polling showed that Bostonians were very open to hosting the Olympics,” he explains. “But when they started reading the fine print – that’s when they decided that the bid wasn’t in their best interests.”

He says the financial burden of hosting the Games was the primary concern, along with a resentment of outsiders telling the city what would be best for it.

“[We] wanted to be heard and to chart the future of our city. I think in Calgary they felt the same way,” he says.  And he appears to have a point.

After Calgary residents voted overwhelmingly against running as hosts last week, one Calgary councillor, Sean Chu, said: “I think that people had enough of the establishment, telling us what to do, what to think. They tell you to spend millions, billions, it’s good for you.”

After polls began to show declining support for Boston’s bid, it was withdrawn in the summer of 2015 in what was seen as an unlikely victory for the ‘No’ camp.

“The ‘Yes’ side spent about $15 million (£11.7m) and we spent less than $10,000 on our entire campaign,” Mr Dempsey says.

He believes that residents should assess the facts of an Olympic bid rather than just buying into the pride and honour of being a host.

Kenyan runner Jemima Sumgong reacts after winning gold in the women marathon. Photo/AFP

“When democracies look at this as a public policy question – and they soberly assess the pros and cons – their voters are realising that this is just not in their best interests,” he says.

“We were always confident that we had the facts on our side.”

Growing concerns over the economic benefits of hosting an Olympics are not unreasonable, experts say.

“There is good reason for cities to be concerned,” says Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, who has studied decades of Olympic budgets. “The general trend is that costs have been going up and governments are anxious about spending too much money.

“It’s a multi-billion dollar budget that you will need to host the Games and that’s only covering the direct sports-related costs,” he says. “There are also the indirect infrastructure costs such as improving transport systems.”

The cost of the 2014 Winter Games in Russia’s Sochi was put at $51bn – the most expensive in history. The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 cost $40bn.

Prof Flyvbjerg says that every Olympic Games since 1960 has run over its budget – some by startling amounts.

So why is spending increasing? “People like to put on bigger parties,” he says. “There’s a sort of competition that everyone wants to do the best Olympics ever.”

The other reason for this is inexperience, Prof Flyvbjerg suggests.

“Any city that puts on the Olympics has never done it before or did it so long ago they cannot use that experience,” he says. “So you have inexperienced people in charge of putting on a multi-billion dollar event which is bound to lead to cost overrun.

“It’s not sustainable. I think it’s come as a bit of a shock for the International Olympic Committee [IOC].”

The IOC, which organises the event, does recognise the worry around costs.

“We know the cost of the Games is a concern,” its Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi tells the BBC. “I feel that we have to make all efforts to contain the costs and complexity.”

He says that a number of measures have been introduced in recent years that are aimed at reducing the cost of hosting the Games.

The organisation has started pledging money to offset some of the financial burden. It has promised to contribute $1.8bn to the organising committee of the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, for example.

It also wants to see bids from cities that already have the right infrastructure and venues in place. This is due to growing concerns about so-called “white elephants”, expensive facilities that go to waste after the Games have finished. –BBC

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