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 South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.