It’s getting harder to ignore the fact that the Olympics are massively expensive. And many cities—except in nations with something to prove (see: Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014)—are suddenly realizing that hosting the Olympics is kind of a raw deal.
Athens, which hosted the Summer Olympics in 2004 at a cost of $11 billion, has let its fancy new venues fall into disrepair. In Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 Winter Games, this documentarian had to tiptoe around active land mines when trying to film Olympic venues.
Those billions did go toward infrastructure: Barcelona was able to do “50 years of infrastructure improvements in the five years leading up to the games” it hosted in summer 1992. And Athens did get a new metro, highways and a new international airport.
But overall, hosting the games may not be a good investment. A sports economist (yeah, that’s a thing) at the University of Chicago compared Olympics-hosting cities with similar cities that didn’t host the games, looking at growth in construction, tourism and financial services four years before and after the games. They found … nothing.
And so Americans in the four cities that submitted bids to host the 2024 Summer Olympics are protesting.
“The commonwealth [of Massachussets] has far bigger and more important priorities than throwing a three-week party,” says one Boston activist to NPR.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad in hosting a big sports event, says one economist. It’s just that the Olympic Committee favors the big flashy bids, not the ones that pledge to spend modestly.
“The bids that make economic sense are the bids have no chance of winning,” that economist told Vox. “And the bid that will end up winning won’t make economic sense.”
This could be why only a handful of cities submitted bids for the 2022 Olympics, which may end up in Kazakhstan as Almaty is only one of the remaining two contenders. The IOC changed its guidelines for bidding cities after that, making them more flexible, but it remains to be seen whether that will result in cheaper bids.
So when are the Olympics a win for cities? Barcelona is actually one of the few cities that has seen success post-games. According to Vox, the 1992 games were like free (okay, very expensive) advertising for the Spanish city, previously overshadowed by Madrid. But that argument doesn’t hold water with the American cities bidding this year: Boston, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco are already established tourist destinations, and in fact when a well-known city hosts the Olympics tourism actually goes down for the duration of the games (possibly because other visitors are scared away by the thoughts of crowds).
That’s not a compelling argument for any city that depends on tourism.
As so many pundits have pointed out, not everything is about what makes the most economic sense. The Olympics are fun, and everyone loves fun, right? But when so many cities have underfunded schools, parks, and transit, it’s hard to justify spending billions on sports facilities.