Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold: The Argument for a Permanent Olympic City

By Garrett Sullivan

Bryan turner mf9m6brhctg unsplash

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

Citius, Altius, Fortius. The ancient Greek Olympic Games’ slogan reading “Faster, Higher, Stronger” served as a call to action for city-states throughout Peloponnese to send their strongest warriors, most skilled soldiers, and best athletes to compete on the greatest stage of ancient sport. The ancient Olympics served as a signal of city-state power, while also fostering a sense of nationalism within the territories (Allen). Citizens of Sparta would watch enthusiastically as they hoped to see their Athenian neighbors suffer defeat in a footrace, while the people of Corinth cheered on their athletes as they hurled shotput against the representatives from Argos. Though highly competitive, the ancient Olympics yielded a sense of unification for the people of Greece (Allen). A similar pattern persists today.

The modern Olympic Games are one of the most storied events in world sports. The athletes have become stronger, the stakes higher, and the spectacles of ceremonies and Olympic stadiums grander. We cheer on our nation’s best athletes every two years, hoping to see them return home with the coveted gold around their necks. Yet the Olympics have begun to create negative externalities which are putting a damper on the glitz and glamor that we see on TV. Hosting the Games results in a myriad of social, environmental, and financial disruptions. The International Olympic Committee must designate permanent sites for both the Summer and Winter Games to prevent unnecessary economic expenditures, avoid exploitation of lower social classes, and protect the environment.

The Olympic Games pose an immense economic challenge to the host city and country. For many cities, it’s necessary to construct an Olympic village to house the 10,000+ athletes, create new facilities for training and competition, and build extensive new infrastructure to host the hundreds of thousands of spectators who migrate to the city from around the world. Often, the economic undertaking far exceeds the proposed budget. For example, the 1976 Montreal Games ran 720% over budget. Additionally, Rio de Janeiro’s $14+ billion spent in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games exceeded its budget by 352% (McCarthy). Most recently, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are estimated to have cost $20 billion, almost three times the original budget of $7.4 billion (Cervantes). It’s not uncommon for cities to understate their proposed costs of hosting the Olympics during the bidding process. One reason for this continual intentional underestimate is that governments hope to keep the citizens of both the city and the country invested in hosting the Games. When they propose a lower cost of hosting, thus resulting in a supposedly smaller economic burden on the people, there’s a higher probability of continued public support. However, many people are beginning to catch on to this strategy and are fighting back against the tricks used during the bidding process. In 2015, Hamburg’s citizens recognized the common trend of gross overspending and took action to prevent the city from bidding to serve as host. The inhabitants of Hamburg struck down the project through a referendum, citing “cost grounds” as the reason for their opposition (McCarthy). With the money for the games ultimately coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets, the citizen’s opposition is understandable. If the IOC decided to establish a permanent site for the Games, the billions of dollars that nations spend in preparation to host could be saved and used in other ways, for example to stimulate social programs or invest in better educational and labor opportunities.

The massive financial undertaking of hosting the Olympics often results in minimal positive effects for the city in the future. The organizers of the 2016 Rio Games proposed to their citizens that the construction of various new stadiums and facilities would serve as cornerstones for communities in the future, allowing for increased access to organized sport. Yet just six months after the Olympic torch had been extinguished in the city, the glitzy new stadiums that had played host to the best athletes in the world had fallen into disrepair. For example, a Business Insider article details the state of deterioration of the facilities. The new golf course, which decimated protected wildlife reserves during its construction, now sits overgrown and abandoned (Knowlton). The Olympic Village, which was pitched to the residents of Rio to become an apartment complex following its competition, is now a ghost town. Most upsetting for many, the famous Maracanã stadium sits lifeless, with its once beautiful pitch full of dirt and dead grass, the luxurious benches torn apart, and the electronics that made it one of the best venues during the Games stripped away by looters (Knowlton). The stadium that once housed some of the best Brazilian footballing moments in history is now a desolate wasteland.

The influx of tourism to the host city yields no concrete benefit for the city in the future. Many argue that the convergence of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world into one city can serve as a welcome injection of cash into the host nation’s economy. Hotels become filled with enthused supporters, restaurants are stuffed with visitors, and local attractions become swarmed with sightseers. Yet as previously stated, the Olympics often run severely over budget and the revenue generated from these tourists makes a minimal impact. For example, London’s 2012 Olympics generated approximately $5.2 billion in revenue compared to over $18 billion in costs. Additionally, Beijing’s 2008 Games generated only $3.6 billion, a miniscule amount when considering that it cost about $40 billion to prepare to host (McBride). Furthermore, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the rush of tourists is an overall positive for the host city. While Barcelona enjoyed extreme tourism success following its stint with the Games in 1992, jumping from 11th to 6th most popular destination in Europe, other cities haven’t been as fortunate (McBride). In fact, London, Beijing, and Salt Lake City all saw decreases in tourism for the years following the Olympics. Experts explain this puzzling reality with the idea that swarms of tourists for the Olympics crowd out the regular tourists who would have typically visited the city (McBride). When these regulars don’t visit and explore elsewhere, sometimes they do not return to the host city because they discover new locations to enjoy.

The Olympics take advantage of lower socioeconomic classes and exacerbate social inequalities within the host city. In preparation for the 1996 Games, Atlanta demolished two housing projects to make way for a gymnastics complex. As a result, 6,000 low-income Atlanta residents were left without housing. Furthermore, the investment in the area led to rapid gentrification, with an estimated 24,000 additional residents being displaced following the competition’s culmination (Worles). Unfortunately, this unpleasant byproduct did not only exist in Atlanta. As Rio constructed the facilities necessary to host in 2016, the government displaced almost 70,000 people. In fact, during “pacification” efforts to clean up the city’s image, government forces killed around 1,000 citizens, most of whom were Black, as they forcibly removed them from their homes (Worles). Brazil knew that it would be far easier to take advantage of the lower socioeconomic classes due to their suppressed political voice within the country. Rio’s government preyed on them to make way for the $20 billion Olympics, an investment that could have been applied to housing projects and employment investments in a country ranked 12th in the world for inequality at the time (Worles).

The Olympics hoard necessary resources designed to protect the most vulnerable members of society. Immediately following the culmination of Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympics, The Guardian travelled to the city to interview various members of the community on their thoughts regarding the past month’s festivities. They began by speaking with an Olympic volunteer named Julia Guimarães, who expressed great enthusiasm for the effects that the competition had on the people of Rio. She said, “It’s been amazing. The Olympics brought people together despite the crisis and the divisions over impeachment. Rio emerged from this with pride” (Watts). In a time of political chaos during the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, Julia believed that the Games served as a critical distraction and unifying force for good throughout the country. Yet when The Guardian spoke with Rio’s less fortunate residents from the infamous favelas, the sentiment shifted drastically. As Rio drastically altered the allocation of their protective police and military resources to the wealthier parts of the city to protect athletes and tourists leading up to and during the Games, crime in the favelas skyrocketed. For example, one national guard member was killed when he mistakenly drove into gang territory in Rio’s Complexo de Maré. While searching for those responsible, Rio police killed five residents (Watts). As necessary resources to control crime were taken away, life for those in the favelas became even more dangerous than it was prior to the arrival of the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics provides no long-term labor opportunities for members of the city. While the Olympics undoubtedly creates numerous temporary jobs within the host city, many of these job openings often go to workers who were already employed. In fact, of the 48,000 temporary jobs created during the 2012 London Olympics, only 10% of the positions went to previously unemployed people (McBride). With people leaving their permanent jobs to work for the Olympic committee temporarily, the economic stability of the city becomes negatively affected. Once the Olympics leave and take with them the temporary jobs, these people are left unemployed and positions that existed both before and after the competition sit open. With the enactment of a permanent Olympic host city, we can not only avoid the issue of labor disruption that the Games create, but also increase the number of permanent job opportunities within the area. If the competition stayed in one place, these people could work full-time in preparation for the next iteration four years down the line, whereas traditionally the Games would end and there would be nothing left for them to do. Permanent jobs lead to the establishment of a well-defined corporate ladder that would hypothetically allow for advancement as workers stack years of experience.

The Olympics are created at the expense of the natural environment within the host cities. Coined by both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government to be one of the ‘most sustainable Olympics’ in history, the Tokyo Olympics were anything but. For example, Tokyo decided to convert 65,000 square meters of open-air gardens in the heart of the city into an aquatics center for the 2020 Summer Games (The Environmental Impact of the Olympic Games). To put it another way, Tokyo sacrificed 9 football fields of green space in one of the most densely populated cities in the world to construct just one building. Some may argue that Tokyo’s collection of carbon credits made the event virtually carbon negative. In fact, the credits purchased by Tokyo’s organizing committee are worth about 150% of the total carbon emissions for the Games (Smithson). Though it may seem as if the Olympics were a net positive for the environment, scientists have roundly criticized the carbon credit system, claiming that it “gives a false sense of accomplishment and security” (Smithson). They claim that the purchase of carbon tokens promotes the continuation of the status quo, disincentivizing fundamental operational changes necessary to decrease carbon emissions down the line and mitigate the effects of climate change (Smithson). Though a permanent city would likely still harm the environment to a certain degree, at least the damage would be limited to one area instead of a new city every few years. In fact, if we were to choose a site that has already hosted the Games and possessed the necessary infrastructure, the impact on the surrounding environment would be even less.

In an age focused more on sustainability than arguably any other, the Games have become overall less sustainable in the past ten years. In a study published in Nature Magazine, each of the past sixteen Olympic Games from 1992 through Tokyo 2020 were examined and given a sustainability score. The study defined a sustainable Olympics as one that creates “a limited ecological and material footprint, enhances social justice and demonstrates long-term economic efficiency” (Müller et al.). Through studying the economic, social, and ecological aspects of each competition, the model was able to offer a consistent representation of how each Olympic Games compared to its counterparts. The results were staggering. The top three most sustainable Olympics were from the older end of the study’s spectrum, with Salt Lake City (2002), Albertville (1992), and Barcelona (1992) taking home the gold, silver, and bronze respectively. Powered by strong performances in long-term viability and minimal public shares of funding, Salt Lake City and Albertville were able to score highly with the model (Müller et al.). However, looking towards the lower end of the rankings, we see a worrying trend. The three least sustainable Olympics were Sochi (2014), Rio de Janeiro (2016), and Tokyo (2020). All three of these host cities scored extremely low in social safety ratings for their citizens that resulted from hosting. Additionally, all possessed very poor long-term viability ratings (Müller et al.). In fact, even when we examine the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, which placed towards the higher end of the spectrum, we see that even these Games scored well below the average for long-term viability scores. While the idea that serving as host will provide immense future benefits for citizens has been pushed harder than ever over the past four iterations of the Olympics, when we examine the reality of the situation following the competition’s completion, we’re seeing the opposite hold true.

As the Olympics have evolved over the years, we’ve seen the world’s greatest athletes compete on the world’s greatest stage. While we see beautiful buildings, sophisticated competition venues, and wonderous ceremonies on our television screens, it’s easy to overlook the effects that hosting the storied competition can have on the city. We’re seeing a worrying trend of economic disruption, social damage, and environmental harm that comes with a travelling Olympic Games. Though it’s beyond the scope of this paper to propose a permanent site for the Summer and Winter Olympics, the implementation of this increasingly accepted idea would prevent unnecessary financial expenditures that could be used for social advancements, prevent job loss and increased unemployment levels, lower the exploitation of underprivileged social classes, and protect our deteriorating environment from further harm. The Olympics serve as a sign for global unity and peace through competition, yet if we fail to recognize the issues that they create right now, we’re allowing for something designed to be a force for good to become a vehicle for disruption and inequality.