The Olympics. Time to Rethink?

While my social media has been filled with various hot takes on issues arising out of the Olympic games currently being held—the injustice of Sha’Carri Richardson’s exclusion from the games, reaction to Simone Biles’ decision not to compete—I’ve been left pondering a bigger picture question. Are the Olympics even still worth it?

First, let me try to answer that question in the most charitable light. It is neat, in the abstract, that we have this international event where the entire world comes together, differences are generally set aside, and young athletes in what are generally relatively obscure sports get a chance to take the world stage and compete against the best of the best. Sure, that’s kind of neat. But does it justify the costs, financial, and otherwise, required? I’m not so sure.

A particular light is being shone on the issue in Tokyo this year, because even if you generally think the Olympics are an otherwise worthy undertaking, holding them this year was a very questionable decision that seemed driven more by dollars and cents than sound and moral reason. We are in the midst of a dangerous tipping point of the Delta variant which may very well result in the world returning to the painful lockdowns we finally thought were over. Nevertheless, we are bringing thousands of people from all over the world into a relatively small space where they will have lots of contact with one another then spread out all over the globe carrying with them not just the medals they have won, but whatever germs they have accumulated along the way. It is reckless. And, as with many other unsavory aspects of the games, the best interests of the people of the host country have been completely ignored. Japan expanded its state of emergency even as preparations for the start of the games were in full swing. 80% of residents opposed going forward. But, apparently money talks.

So, let’s talk about the money. The initially forecasted budget for this game was penciled in at just over $7 billion dollars, later revised to almost $13 billion. The actual cost appears to have come in over $20 billion. Estimates are now saying the cost could be closer to $30 billion. Who foots these massive bills? Is it the International Olympic Committee, the comically corrupt organization that reaps the benefit of billions of dollars in television deals and marketing agreements? No. It is the governments a/k/a the taxpayers of the host nations. Why? Well, the answer that is often trotted out is that host cities create jobs, improve infrastructure, increase tourism, and generally benefit economically from hosting the games. The reality is generally that host countries hemorrhage money to build structures they don’t need and see very little return on this investment. Montreal, as one glaring example, was left with more than a billion dollars in debt that took decades to pay off.

Cities are beginning to realize the fool’s bargain they strike when they seek to host the games, resulting in fewer and fewer cities bidding in the first place. Los Angeles apparently has not learned this lesson. While LA is in a much better position than many other host cities due to a greater level of existing infrastructure and the bid calls for far less expenditure of public funds than many other previous hosts, it is still worth wondering why? Why, in a city with a housing and homelessness crisis that has seen a large exodus due to frustration with city services and quality of life are we spending a projected 7 billion dollars (already up from 5 in the initial estimate) on an event that is, you know, neat, but unlikely to benefit the residents of LA in any meaningful way.

I enjoy the Olympics as much as the next person and really look forward to them, but as in all things, the benefit must be weighed against the cost, and it is difficult to see how, in their current form, the Olympics justify that cost.