by Scott Wagner
For the last two weeks, I’ve spent nearly every evening in my favorite lounge chair, cold beer in hand, flipping back and forth among NBC’s extensive family of networks to watch everything from skeet-shooting to horse dancing (or, as it’s more politely known, equestrian dressage). I’ve seen Simone Biles secure her place as the greatest gymnast of all time—not for her gravity-defying routines in the gym, but for her bravery in the panopticon of public pressure. I’ve seen sportsmanship at its highest level, when Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy chose to share the gold medal in men’s high jump rather than compete in a sudden-death jump-off. I’ve seen 13-year-olds announce their presence on the world stage, and 46-year-olds bid it a fond farewell.
The Pandemic Games (2020-2021) are over now, the Olympic flame extinguished. The village is empty, and the athletic fields and stadiums that were scenes of incredible triumphs now echo only with the sounds of silence. The venues will be reignited during the Paralympic Games later this month, but after that, all that will remain are the memories. And memories don’t keep the lights on.
It can beggar belief that countries will spend billions of dollars on an event that doesn’t outlast a carton of milk. Countries bidding on the Olympics justify the costs by claiming that hosting the games will spur infrastructure development and economic revitalization in the host city. As part of their bid to host the 2004 Olympics, Athens pledged to add a new Metro system and expand the existing highway network around the Greek capital. A central component of the London bid for the 2012 games was the “regeneration” of East London and the Lower Lea Valley. The organizers had grandiose visions, suggesting that the Olympic Park “will become a model of social inclusion, opening up opportunities for education, cultural and skills development and jobs for people across the UK and London.”
These infrastructure projects aren’t smoke and mirrors. Athenians have benefitted from an improved infrastructure network since the 2004 Games, and the 2012 Games did reinvigorate London’s East End—though the realities have fallen well short of utopian expectations. The economic benefits that come from hosting the Games, however, are dwarfed by the exorbitant price tag. The final cost of the London Olympics was more than triple the initial budget; the 2008 Beijing Olympics went a staggering $25 billion over projected costs.
Instead of thinking in economic terms, cities and nations that bid to host the Olympics are blinded by saccharine narratives of nationalistic pride. Before winning the 2004 Olympics, the Greek bid for the 1996 Games was rejected on its lack of merit. The bid suggested that since Greece was the birthplace of both the ancient and modern Olympics, the country should be allowed to host the Games by birthright. Even though the 2004 bid addressed more practical concerns of infrastructure and sporting venues, the Athens Olympics still sported the motto “Welcome Home.”
While Athens played up its historical tradition, Rio emphasized its novelty. No country in South America had ever hosted the Olympics before the Brazilian city won the honor in 2016. IOC President Jacques Rogge at the time said “there was absolutely no flaw in the bid;” Rogge apparently overlooked Brazil’s underdeveloped infrastructure networks and legacy of economic unrest. Brazil had already spent $13.5 billion to host the 2014 World Cup—what was a few billion dollars more between friends?
As an increasingly assertive global power, China saw the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a chance to project soft power throughout the globe. The Chinese Communist Party spared no expense in turning Beijing into a “focal point of worldwide attention,” creating a Chinese metropolis that would awe Western tourists visiting for the Games. To burnish its image abroad, China also played up the language of liberalism and human rights. Lui Qi, then-mayor of Beijing, pledged that hosting the Olympics would “help develop our human rights cause”—a proclamation that rings all too hollow given the events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang over the past ten years.
The empty promises of Olympic bids have produced little more than empty stadiums, once-mighty venues of athletic greatness now monuments to neglect and decay. Paint peels off the walls of the Helliniko Olympic Complex, the “Welcome Home” slogan an ironic complement to the derelict surroundings. Grime covers the walls of the old Aquatic Centre, and ragged weeds reclaim the sandy surfaces where Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor had their first taste of gold. Water no longer runs through the Beijing rafting course, and Olympic mascots lie discarded next to abandoned building sites like unloved dolls cast aside by a fickle child.
All of that pales in comparison to the aftermath of the Rio Olympic Games. 11 workers died while constructing the venues for the country’s first Olympics. Just six months after the Olympic flame went out, the stadiums themselves became graveyards. Swimming pools were cesspits of putrescent brown water. The famed Maracanã Stadium became a looter’s paradise, the formerly lush pitch now unfit to host a Sunday beer league match. The Arena de Amazonia in Manaus, a hubristic $300-million attempt to tame the jungle, lay fallow after hosting only six matches during the entire Olympic Games. Conditions have only deteriorated; in 2020, a judge ordered the closure of the Olympic Park itself due to safety concerns.
The venues themselves are a visual testament to the broader challenges engulfing former host nations. Greece has yet to recover from the devastating economic collapse brought about by the 2008 financial crisis. While decades of poor administration and fiscal irresponsibility were the primary factors contributing to Greece’s hardship, the $11-billion price tag for the Olympic Games helped stretch budgets to their breaking point. In the build-up to the 2008 Olympics, the ruling Chinese Communist Party loosened some restrictions on protest and free speech, sparking hopes that the Games might help lead the country towards liberalization. That optimism has proven to be a naïve fantasy. In the UK, some ardent Remainers suggest that Brexiteers squeaked out a victory in the 2016 referendum by tapping into a prideful British nationalism sparked by the 2012 London Games. While that might be giving the Olympic spirit a bit too much credit, the success of the London Games did launch the career of then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister of Britain and ardent Brexiteer. In Brazil, the litany of corruption scandals surrounding the World Cup and the Olympic Games infuriated the Brazilian people. In the 2018 elections, they turned to a fresh face promising to clean up the country: Jair Bolsonaro. The far-right president has done anything but.
Tokyo is trying to avoid the same fate as prior snake-bitten Olympics hosts. Officials used existing infrastructure whenever possible, rather than building new venues and accommodations from scratch. They have already earmarked Olympic venues for post-Olympic purposes; the Olympic village, for example, will be converted into residential apartments. Unlike Greece in 2004 or Brazil in 2016, Japan’s economy is on stable ground even with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging.
Yet the Olympics aren’t likely to provide a major jolt to the country, either. Pandemic travel restrictions remain in effect in Japan, effectively eliminating any tourism and the economic benefits that come with it. With decreased returns, the staggering cost of the Tokyo Olympics (over $20 billion according to Japanese government auditors) will sting even more.
But the IOC knows it’s not the sting we remember. It’s the patriotic fervor that comes with cheering on our athletes—or, as some American right-wing pundits have done, rooting against them for supposedly not having enough patriotic fervor. It’s the feeling of watching the best in the world break records and win medals while you, lazy and unathletic as you may be, share in their accomplishments from the comfort of your couch—all because they have your flag next to their name. It’s the feeling of having something, and someone, to cheer for.
That feeling triumphs everything else. The Olympics are a colossal waste of money built on false narratives and broken promises. But despite all that, when the 2022 Beijing Winter games begin, I won’t be thinking about the costs or the cons. I’ll be right back in my lounge chair, drinking another beer, enraptured by the prowess and elegance of the greatest athletes on Earth.
Scott Wagner is the deputy editor of INTERZINE.