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Selling the Olympics

The merchants of the Olympic brand are running out of ideas. For decades, the deception of common humanity and the broader interests of building peace before the terror of war supposedly immunised the Olympics from slander and critique. Olympism was a high-ended spectrum of nobility, though it reeked of the body beautiful and a state sponsored cult of blood.

It also meant that countries, and more to the point cities, were encouraged to host the large scale event before a rather inflated name. Megalomaniacs, dictators, and gullible democracies joined in the profligate fun. Even mayor Jean Drapeau of Montreal, host city of the 1976 Summer Games, could claim in a moment of suspended sanity that “the Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby.”[1] It took till 2006 for the accrued $1.5 billion debt to be paid off.

The bidding process, positively smacking with corrupt wheeling and unscrupulous dealing, would throw up a doomed unfortunate who would, after the hangover from the celebrations, sober up to the prospect of excessive cost over poor returns and revenue.

As economist Victor Matheson has pointed out in rather damning fashion, “Public expenditures on sports infrastructure entail reductions in other government services, an expansion of government borrowing, or an increase in taxation, all of which produce a drag on the local economy.”[2] (Importantly, such infrastructure tends to be deemed equivalent to general public infrastructure, a sophistic nonsense.)

Matheson throws cold water on any such notions that these events actually bring in the attractions of the purse, or the prospect for greater employment to the local economy. “At best public expenditures on sports-related construction or operation have zero net impact on the economy as the employment benefits of the project are matched by employment losses associated with higher taxes or spending cuts elsewhere in the system.”

More states are realising that the Olympics is a factor for the production of white elephants, mouldering and festering structures that have seen more weeds than spectators over their lifetime.

The 2022 Winter Olympics saw numerous withdrawals last year.[3] Cities such as Krakow, Munich, and Davos-St. Moritz scrapped their bids in the face of public rejection. Lviv’s withdrawal was a disaster of history – revolution and war put pay to any idea that hosting an Olympics might actually be wise, while sane heads in Stockholm did the sums and decided that earnings would, in fact, be poorer than expenditure.

The results for countries showing greater reluctance for hosting the Olympics is that its organisers are returning back to police state and authoritarian sponsors. But the IOC is also trying to hunt for fresh pastures, approaches and, to be frank, the plain gullible. One has been a recent suggestion for encouraging multicity-bids in an effort to distribute the financial folly. Even a few countries – take Malaysia and Thailand – are rumoured to be putting in joint bids for the 2024 games.

Some have fallen for the trick. The bun fights are already starting in Australia about such a move regarding the 2028 games, which various cities vying off for the richest events. Brisbane’s Lord Mayor thinks his city is in with a jolly chance, showing that even a prospective Olympic bid can distract from the impact of environmental disasters in the state.[4]

The Herald Sun was keen to parade Melbourne’s gold-studded sporting attributes in a manner to outshine other cities who might partake in the co-hosting. The brunt of the boast was, invariably, Sydney. The Melbourne Cricket Ground’s capacity of 100,000 was superior to other stadia in the country. The city’s Hisense Arena for cycling is close to the central station, while Sydney’s Dunc Gray Velodrome is 24km west of the city. As for sailing: “We’ve got water, and it’s windy all the bloody time.”[5]

In what is absurd Olympic speak, commentary abounds that the $50 million or more necessary to mount such a bid would actually be “a worthy investment” (Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 29). They point to the Melbourne games of 1956, the same city’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and Sydney’s 2000 effort as “positive” achievements.

Again, stubborn mendacity prevails, with the view that winning an Olympic bid somehow enriches the local environment in terms of development and modernisation. Justin Madden, a senior infrastructure consultant working at Arup, falls for the IOC propaganda with striking ease. A bid by Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne might spur on a “city-to-city ultra-fast rail” that would invigorate the eastern seaboard. With “critical time lines” pressing down on construction efforts, this might make such a project “possible”.[6]

Anyone with any sense of Australia’s record on trains and modernisation will understand that obstacles tend to prevail over achievement and speed. Inter-state obstinacy, to take one stellar example, made sure that each state, even at federation, retained its own rail gauge system.

In such an environment, the public will generally matters less than buffoonish government self-promotion. Sporting events of such scale have always been about spectators and image, even if that image proves far from convincing on the ledger.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Notes. 

[1] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-s-big-owe-stadium-debt-is-over-1.602530

[2] http://college.holycross.edu/RePEc/hcx/Matheson_MegaEvents.pdf

[3] http://wqad.com/2014/06/02/leading-contenders-withdraw-bids-to-host-2022-winter-olympics/

[4] http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/brisbane-eyes-bid-to-host-olympic-games-in-2028/story-fnn8dlfs-1227239246191

[5] http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/sport/olympic-games-why-melbourne-is-the-best-place-for-key-sports-at-the-2028-games/story-fni2flhh-1227328346951

[6] http://www.smh.com.au/comment/an-australian-multicity-olympic-games-bid-is-a-likely-winner-20150429-1mvp0y.html

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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