Yes, the Olympics are expensive – but they can also be an investment

A sign protesting Switzerland’s bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. Image: Getty.

Poor Olympic Games, poor IOC.

Rich in cash, of course – wallowing in it, some might say – but poor, it seems, in esteem. Calgary is the latest city to suffer the indignity of a proposed Olympic bid being scuppered by a public referendum. And how we – or at least those of us who don’t work in Olympic sport – love it when the Olympics and the IOC get a bloody nose.

“Nobody can afford to host the Olympics but at the IOC the largesse never stops”, read a gleeful headline from the Guardian, actually published a couple of weeks before the vote, nicely summed up the prevailing (western) attitude to the Olympics, for those without any skin in the game(s).

Written by someone, calling himself an ‘unlucky sucker’, who claims to love the Olympics, it continues: “Potential host cities are dwindling to an embarrassing low and yet the International Olympic Committee seems to still be living in the era when money is no object”. With friends like that… 

Partly, as we all know, the IOC doesn’t help itself. Covering the Olympic movement, you can’t help but come close to gagging on the sickly-sweet diet of first-class air travel, luxury limos, opulent hotel suites and exclusive dinners that constitutes life inside the bubble of IOC membership.

Indeed, the Guardian article didn’t fail to recycle the (probably fallacious) story that the IOC’s ‘rider’ for hosting the 2022 winter Olympics in Oslo (which subsequently dropped out of the race) was 7,000 pages long and stipulated that IOC members get a cocktail reception with the Norwegian royal family, exclusive use of special road lanes and priority treatment at airports and hotels, “but stopped just short of Van Halen’s famous request for a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones picked out.”

I have interviewed a series of IOC members and those close to the IOC in recent months and years and can’t help feeling that they, or many of them, still don’t get it. Often, they seem genuinely hurt and baffled when asked what the IOC can do to reverse the received wisdom (recycled again and again by the world’s media) that its members are out of touch and over-entitled and that the games are elitist and just, somehow, neither of, nor for, the people.

This is despite the fact that a millionaire Olympian is, on the whole, an oxymoron, while a millionaire in football, the ‘people’s’ game, is just the football billionaire’s poor relation (yes, I know football is in the Olympics, but it’s telling that it’s an under-23 tournament and the stars don’t take part – they know they can earn much, much more with their clubs).

For, like it or not, the reason that cities keep dropping out of Olympic bid races is money. Just consider the Calgary bid campaign, which seemed absolutely incapable of derailing the runaway juggernaut of public debate from the preordained tramlines of ‘think-how-many-schools-and-hospitals you-could-get-for that-amount-of-money’ that the ‘NOlympics’ lobby had laid down for it.

Yet show me, if you can, all the schools and hospitals that the nine cities and states that have rejected the Olympics in referenda in the last five years have built with the money they saved. You can’t? Thought not.

The point about the Olympic Games, if they’re done well, is that they’re not a cost; they’re an investment. Just take a look at the post-industrial wasteland that was the east end of London before the 2012 games, and then look at it now. The UK government knew this (or at least it was eventually brought round to believing it), which was why it went ahead with the games without feeling the need to call a referendum.


It’s true that costs multiplied over the course of the bid process, and that the eventual all-in cost of approximately £9bn ($11.6bn) was several times the amount originally forecast. But that’s not £9bn to host an Olympic Games, it’s £9bn to regenerate a massive area of one of the world’s great cities – transport, infrastructure, housing, sports facilities for all and, yes, even a school.

And, hey, you know what? The costs of major infrastructure projects nearly always do overrun. A recent report found that cost and revenue overruns of Olympic Games between 2000 and 2018 are broadly comparable to those of other similar large-scale projects.

The study, by academics at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University and France’s Paris Panthéon Sorbonne, found that: “The core Olympic capital investments considered in this study show cost overruns, but they are similar to the cost overruns of other (non-sporting) mega projects.”

Moreover, the study also found that “All Games underestimated their revenues and had revenue overruns,” and that “the costs of organising the Olympic Games (OCOG budget) are usually covered by revenues, which are almost entirely private resources plus the International Olympic Committee’s contribution.”

Calgary’s budget for hosting the winter Olympic Games, including delivery and games operations, all venues, housing, legacy endowment and contingency funds, was a relatively modest C$5.1bn ($3.9 bn) in C$2018. That’s still a lot of money, some might say, but a lot of money compared to what? Canada’s federal budget for 2018-19 is C$338.5bn – and remember that’s for just one year. The costs of hosting the games would have been spread over seven years.

Back in the UK, it’s now six years since those £9bn games, and the government’s current pet project is ‘HS2’, a high-speed rail line linking London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester. Scheduled to open in phases between 2026 and 2033, high-speed trains will travel at up to 400 kilometres an hour on 330 miles of track.

Sounds expensive? It is. The budget is now £56bn – more than six times the cost of the Olympics, and an increase of 71 per cent on the initial projection in 2010 of £32.7bn.

I live in the UK. Did anyone ask me whether I wanted this rail line? Nope. Did anyone give me a choice between this and £56bn worth of schools and hospitals? Don’t make me laugh. The government did what it was elected to do and made that difficult spending choice for me. If I don’t like it, I can see what can be done about it at the next election.

So why is it different for Olympic Games?

This article originally appeared on Sportcal.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.