KNAYSI: Get rid of the games

The economic and social costs of holding the Olympics far outweigh the benefits

As I watched a few clips from the closing ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, I felt momentarily awed by the grandiose display. And then I felt a little sick. How much time, money and energy were spent on this display? This decadent ceremony was the culmination of a particularly controversial year of Olympics, and — with a price tag of over $51 billion — Sochi’s Games are by far the most expensive in history. Considered alongside Russia’s well-known (and ongoing) human rights violations and government corruption, it seems a great time to stop and wonder: Are the Olympics a tradition worth continuing?

I believe the Olympics should be drastically scaled back or even eliminated. Why take such an unpatriotic and irreverent stance? The question can be answered from several angles: Are the Olympics a good economic “investment” for the host country? Do host countries put their time, money and energy toward the best social and economic causes? Do the games have a positive influence on world cultures?

Sochi might be one of the easiest Olympics to criticize, but it is merely the worst (so far) in a clear downward trend. Most of my criticisms — including the overspending, the ridiculous patriotism and the neglect of more serious global issues — also apply in some degree to London, Beijing, Salt Lake City, Athens and (inevitably) Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

I will start with the most common — but in my opinion, not the most significant — criticism of the Olympics. Is the host country’s spending a good economic investment? Though this varies between games, Sochi is an easy case. As Gina Champion-Cain, a specialist from American International Investments notes, “the Russians will only recover a meager fraction of their $50 billion Winter Olympic expenditure. It was never their intention to make this a profitable venture.” Olympic opposition figures Leonid Martynyuk and Boris Nemtsov assert in a May report that two-thirds of the money was lost to Russian corruption. The situation is made worse by the fact that Russian taxpayers funded — directly or indirectly — most of this budget.

Greece provides another great example of the economic downside of Olympic spending. The cost of the 2004 Summer Games in Athens is often cited as a major contributor to the Greek government’s debt crisis — and we know how well that turned out.

But we do not need to look at the costliest or most irresponsible games to make the point. As Robert Barney, founding director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario notes, when you include the funds used by governments and taxpayers to subsidize the events, not one game in the history of the Olympics has made money.

Typical cost assessment for the Olympics does not account for intangible costs to the environment and society. For example, the 2012 London Olympics, considered one of the more profitable in recent years, has been criticized for distorting the residential property market, displacing many low-income urban tenants and diverting National Lottery funds from voluntary organizations. And even if money was not lost to corruption or unnecessary infrastructure, why should a country be in the business of spending billions of dollars on glorified sporting events? Large swaths of its population would yield much greater benefits from social programs and better infrastructure (i.e. not sports complexes).

Putting potential economic and social injustice aside for a moment, what about the athletes? Don’t the core values of sportsmanship and dedication give the games redeeming value? As an Olympic Museum report notes, the purpose of the Olympic Movement is to “link sport with culture and education, promote the practice of sport and the joy found in effort [and] help build a better world through sport practised in a spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect.” Though this describes a lovely ideal, the Olympics largely come to us marketed as a product (courtesy of NBC), complete with backstories of the athletes, American flags, and so on.

Though the competition provides us with a feel-good moment in front of our television screens, you have to question a culture that glorifies athletes while largely ignoring scientists, teachers or activists (i.e. those who actually contribute to their societies rather than relentlessly pursuing glory for themselves and “the nation”). The discipline, dedication and neuromuscular artistry of the athletes is admirable — but considering the price tag, are the Olympics really an optimal way to build a better society? The Olympics sound like a good idea on paper, but in the aftermath of Sochi’s spending spree, we shouldn’t simply shrug our shoulders and look forward to 2016. It’s time to reevaluate the games’ role in world tradition.

George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published March 4, 2014 in Opinion

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